Nigella seeds show up in many Indian recipes, especially those from the northern Indian states of Punjab and Bengal. The spice is available from online merchants and Indian grocery stores but if neither of these is an option or if you don’t like the taste of nigella seeds, consider an alternative. Below are some substitutes for nigella seeds that provide many of the same benefits.
Your best bet: Celery seeds
What we call celery seed is actually the seed of the smallage plant, which is a relative of celery. It is a different plant, with different characteristics. Even so, celery seed captures the flavor of celery perfectly. Even better, it is a stronger and longer-lasting source of the flavor. As a source of savory and intensely herbaceous flavor notes, celery seed is a great stand-in for the oregano and onion notes of nigella seeds. Neither seed has a particularly pungent aroma, but both are flavorful.
Celery seeds are often used in many of the same types of dishes that require nigella seeds as an ingredient. You can use them in place of nigella seeds in pickles as well as in sauces and rubs for grilled or smoked meats.
Celery seeds and nigella seeds are similar in terms of pungency, which means that you can use celery seeds as a 1:1 substitute for nigella seeds.
A decent second choice: Oregano
Oregano is a member of the mint family and a popular seasoning for meat and vegetable dishes. Despite the fact that oregano is an herb, it does have a lot in common with nigella seeds. Like nigella seeds, the origin of oregano began in the Mediterranean region. Oregano’s flavor is herbal and savory like those of nigella seeds; in fact, oregano’s flavor may be the closest match to the nigella seed flavor.
Oregano can be used in many of the same dishes including rubs for roasted meats and vegetable dishes. Note that there will be a texture difference since oregano is a herb and will not provide the same crunch that you would get from nigella seeds. Another important factor to keep in mind is that oregano leaves are a dull green and bear no resemblance to the small black nigella seeds.
Use dried oregano as a 1:1 substitute for nigella seeds.
In a pinch: Cumin seeds
Cumin seeds are used heavily in many of the same parts of the world where nigella seeds are a staple. Like nigella seeds, they can provide an intense savory note that works well in a range of dishes from meat dishes to soups and sauces. Their flavor has some of the nutty qualities that are present in nigella seeds. As a result, cumin seeds will pair well with most of the ingredients in dishes that require nigella seeds. Whole cumin seeds can be bitter in some applications, so you may want to use them as a substitute in dishes that require ground nigella seeds. Use them in vegetable dishes and to season roasted or grilled meats.
You can use cumin seeds as a 1:1 substitute for nigella seeds.
Black sesame seeds are sesame seeds with their hulls intact, not a separate variety of sesame seed. They have the same flavor as white sesame seeds, just with a slight bitter note and minor textural difference. The flavor is quite different from the flavor of nigella seeds, but the appearance is not. If you are not a fan of the nigella seed flavor, black sesame seeds can provide exactly the same appearance in traditional recipes with a much milder taste. They are especially well-suited for use in the many bread recipes from India and the Middle East that require nigella seeds.