The Other Nigella: An Ancient Spice
Last Saturday afternoon, perusing the ingredients for Classic Bengali Fish in Broth from Mangoes and Curry Leaves, we came to a dead halt. Did we have nigella seeds for the Bengali Five Spice Mixture which would scent the liquid in which turmeric-dusted cod was to be cooked? Afraid not.
But then, rummaging in the dark corners of the pantry, we found a dusty jar of darkish seeds which looked suspiciously like,,,nigella. It was very, very old, but the seeds still had hints of the slightly bitter, peppery flavor that characterizes the spice. (Luckily we had violated the cardinal rule of spice storage: Toss after a year.)
Nigella has been around since the days of the Romans; the ebony seeds get their name from the Latin nigellus or niger, which means black. They are vaguely triangular or tear-drop shaped (hence the misnomer “black cumin”) and, when rubbed, smell a bit like oregano. They have a slight oniony taste, which has led to another alias: "black onion seeds." This is also a misnomer, since they are not related to the onion family, but are the seeds of the blue-or white flowered nigella sativa, commonly known as “love-in-a-mist.’
Nigella is a key ingredient of panch phoron (“panch” means “five” and “phoron” means “spice” or “flavor”), an Indian spice mixture which also includes fennel, fenugreek, cumin and black mustard. (Alford and Duguid’s recipe calls for a tablespoon of each spice, mixed and stored in a jar.) It is also used in Turkish and Ethiopian cooking.
The Arabs have a proverb: “In the black seed is the medicine for every disease save death.” Herbal guru Jim Duke, author of the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, notes that aromatic nigella seeds have strong anti-microbial properties; the essential oil alone contains “four antioxidants that scavenge free radicals." In the Middle East, the spice is incorporated in treatments for an staggering array of ailments, from eczema and head lice to asthma and cardiovascular disease. Oh, yes, and nigella also repels moths.
(Naturally, the other Nigella—Lawson, that is—has recipes using nigella seeds, including Stir-Braised Savoy Cabbage (Nigella Bites) and Nigellan Flatbread (How To Be a Domestic Goddess). For a list, go to www.nigella.com.)