(Nigella sativa L.)
Ranunculaceae (buttercup family).
It is believed to be indigenous to the Mediterranean region but has been cultivated into other parts of the world including the Arabian peninsula, northern Africa and parts of Asia.
Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant, native to south and southwest Asia. It grows to 20–30 cm tall, with finely divided, linear leaves. The flowers are delicate, and usually coloured pale blue and white, with five to ten petals. The fruit is a large and inflated capsule composed of three to seven united follicles, each containing numerous seeds. The seed is used as a spice. The deep black, sharp-edged seed grains. Nigella seeds are small, matte-black grains with a rough surface and an oily white interior. They are roughly triangulate, 1.5 – 3 mm long. They are similar to onion seeds.
Western Asia is probably its origin. Although nigella is not mentioned in the common Bible translations, there is good evidence that an obscure plant name mentioned in the Old Testament means Nigella; if true, this would indicate that Nigella is cultivated since far more than two millennia.
According to Zohary and Hopf, archaeological evidence about the earliest cultivation of N. sativa “is still scanty”, but they report supposed Nigella sativa seeds have been found in several sites from ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamun’s tomb. Although its exact role in Egyptian culture is unknown, it is known that items entombed with a Pharaoh were carefully selected to assist him in the afterlife.
The earliest written reference to Nigella sativa is thought to be in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, where the reaping of Nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27). Easton’s Bible dictionary states the Hebrew word ketsah refers to Nigella sativa without doubt. According to Zohary and Hopf, Nigella sativa was another traditional condiment of the Old World during classical times; and its black seeds were extensively used to flavour food. Found in Hittite flask in Turkey from the 2nd millennium BCE.
The name for Nigella across nearly every culture and language is a derivative of that language’s name for black. For example, the Latin name is nigella and in Latin the word for black is niger. The Finnish call Nigella mustakumina and the Finnish word for black is musta. In English, Nigella sativa seed is variously called fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, blackseed or black caraway. Other names used, sometimes misleadingly, are onion seed and black sesame, both of which are similar-looking, but are unrelated.
There are several Nigella species besides Nigella sativa; the second most important species seems to be Nigella damascena, a common ornamental in Europe. By the use of the genus name for the spice, I do not imply that all members of the genus can be used culinarily. The seeds of Nigella damascena do have some flavour, but I find them inferior to those of the true spice Nigella sativa.
Sowing Nigella Seeds
Sow outdoors in early spring or fall. Barely cover the seeds. Thin to 15cm apart. To prolong bloom, make successive sowings every 4 weeks throughout spring and early summer. Full sun. Easy to grow. Self sows.
The Flavour and Aroma
Nigella seeds, in their whole form, have very little detectable fragrance. Crack them open, even slightly, and you get the impression that clouds of aroma have been brewing inside the seed just waiting for the opportunity to be released. The scent and flavour have a distinct peppery punch overlaid with the sharp lines of cumin. It’s popular with Middle Eastern and Indian dishes. The flavour is intensified and like many spices benefits from being lightly toasted in a hot dry cast iron skillet for a few moments.
Health benefits of Nigella Sativa
The seeds of Nigella sativa (family: Ranunculaceae), commonly known as Black Seed, Black Cumin, or “Habbatul Barakah”, have long been used in folk medicine in the Arabian Gulf region, Far East Asia, and Europe.
Nigella has been used since antiquity by Asian herbalists and pharmacists and was used for culinary purposes by the Romans. The seeds are known to repel certain insects and can be used like moth balls.
The seeds have been traditionally used in the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries for a variety of ailments. These uses range from stomach aches to asthma, cancer to coughs, and the traditional use as a spice. In modern Marrakech, Nigella seeds are sold in small bundles to be rubbed until warm, when they emit an aroma which opens clogged sinuses in
the way that do eucalyptus or Vicks. A number of useful properties such as antihistamine, antioxidant, antibiotic, antimycotic and broncho-dilating effects.
Nigella is used in Indian medicine as a carminative and stimulant and is used against indigestion and bowel complaints. In India it is used to induce postnatal uterine contraction and promote lactation.
In the traditional system of medicine practised in the Arabian Gulf region, Nigella seed is recommended for a wide range of ailments, including fever, cough, bronchitis, asthma, chronic headache, migraine, dizziness, chest congestion, dysmenorrhea, obesity, diabetes, paralysis, hemiplagia, back pain, infection, inflammation, rheumatism, hypertension, and gastrointestinal problems such as dyspepsia, flatulence, dysentery, and diarrhea. It has been used as a stimulant, diuretic, emmenagogue, lactagogue, anthelmintic, and carminative. Also been used externally where it is applied directly to abscesses, nasal ulcers, orchitis, eczema, and swollen joints.
Nigella sativa oil contains an abundance of conjugated linoleic (18:2) acid, thymoquinone, nigellone dithymoquinone), melanthin, nigilline, damascenine, and tannins. Melanthin is toxic in large doses and nigelline is paralytic, so this spice must be used in moderation.
The seeds contain numerous esters of structurally unusual unsaturated fatty acids with terpene alcohols (7%); furthermore, traces of alkaloids are found which belong to two different types: isochinoline alkaloids are represented by nigellimin and nigellimin-N-oxide, and pyrazol alkaloids include nigellidin and nigellicin.
In the essential oil (avr. 0.5%, max. 1.5%), thymoquinone was identified as the main component (up to 50%) besides p-cymene (40%), α-pinene (up to 15%), dithymoquinone and thymohydroquinone. Other terpene derivatives were found only in trace amounts: Carvacrol, carvone, limonene, 4-terpineol, citronellol. Furthermore, the essential oil contains significant (10%) amounts of fatty acid ethyl esters. On storage, thymoquinone yields dithymoquinone and higher oligo-condensation products (nigellone).
The seeds also contain a fatty oil rich in unsaturated fatty acids, mainly linoleic acid (50 – 60%), oleic acid (20%), eicodadienoic acid (3%) and dihomolinoleic acid (10%) which is characteristic for the genus. Saturated fatty acids (palmitic, stearic acid) amount to about 30% or less. Commercial nigella oil (Black Seed Oil, Black Cumin Oil) may also contain parts of the essential oil, mostly thymoquinone, by which it acquires an aromatic flavour.
Nigella seeds are high in protein, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, B1, B2, C and niacin as well as calcium, potassium and iron.
Preparation and Storage
The seeds may be used whole or ground and are usually fried or roasted before use The are easily crushed in a mortar and pestle or a suitable grinder. Kept in an airtight container away from moisture, heat and light, it will keep for a long period.
Ideas of Cooking with Nigella
Try it with tomatoes, squash, potatoes, or bitter greens. Sprinkle a bit of the roasted seeds on flat breads or cook it into other breads. It’s good with meats. I prefer it with red meats or white meats with a richer vegetable-based sauce.
Nigella is used in India and the Middle East as a spice and condiment and occasionally in Europe as both a pepper substitute and a spice. It is widely used in Indian cuisines, particularly in mildly braised lamb dishes such as korma. It is also added to vegetable and dhal dishes as well as in chutneys. The seeds are sprinkled on to naan bread before baking. Nigella is an ingredient of some garam masalas and is one of the five spices in panch phoran. In the Middle East Nigella is added to bread dough. It’s also called charnushka as a spice that tops an Eastern European rye bread.
Nigella is popular in curries, meat dishes, chutneys, vegetables, naan bread and pastries. It’s popular in breads as a partner with caraway seeds.
Some of the name confusion comes because Nigella isn’t well-known but its shape resembles that of other more popular spices. Nigella is about the size of a sesame seed but it’s midnight black. Unlike a soft sesame seed Nigella is nearly rock hard, more like a peppercorn that must be ground with a mortar and pestle or a suitable grinder, for human consumption.