Nigella Seeds: The Oregano-Flavored Spice

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Nigella seeds are also called black seeds or black cumin, among several other names. The plant from which this spice comes is a relative of the buttercup that originated in the Mediterranean region. Historians believe that it was first used as a culinary spice in Turkey and Syria. You can find the nigella plant growing wild in Egypt and India, but it is also cultivated in those places. It can be found elsewhere in Northern Africa as well, in addition to the southern parts of both Asia and Europe.

Nigella seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun; interestingly, they were still usable. The seeds were used by Cleopatra because of their health- and beauty-enhancing properties. Nefertiti was praised for her perfect complexion and is said to have been an avid user of the oil from nigella seeds. It was commonly recommended by the physicians of ancient Egypt as a treatment for colds and headaches among many other ailments.

Many believe that nigella seeds have been mentioned in the Bible. The Book of Isaiah documents a spice that many interpret to mean nigella seeds.

The Romans also used nigella seeds in to season their food. The spice’s name comes from the Latin nigellus, which means black. It is a reference to the color of the seeds. In 5 BCE, Hippocrates recommended the spice as a treatment for digestive problems. It was still used in the first century, with Pliny the Elder making mention of it in his Naturalis Historia.

In the 16th century, Hieronymus Bosch mentioned nigella seeds extensively in his New Kreutterbuch as does Tabernaemontanus in his 18th-century work titled The New Complete Herbal Book.

Nigella seeds flavor profile

While nigella seeds cannot be described as pungent, they do have a mild oregano aroma. Despite not having much of a scent, they are highly flavorful. The taste includes herbaceous oregano notes mixed with notes of warm cumin and a nutty onion flavor.

Health benefits of nigella seeds

Nigella seeds have major medicinal properties largely due to the fact that they contain these compounds:

  • Fatty acids: The oils in nigella seeds consist of more than 80 percent fatty acids. These include alpha-linoleic acid and linoleic acid.
  • Thymoquinone: Thymoquinone is a plant chemical with a variety of major health benefits. Nigella seeds are thought to be unique as a source of this chemical.

The compounds above, along with others in nigella seeds make them useful for treating and preventing conditions like:

  • Allergies: A compound in nigella seeds is believed to be an effective antihistamine that helps to lessen the severity of allergy symptoms.
  • Cancer: Cancer prevention is one of the benefits of the thymoquinone in nigella seeds. Studies show that it can help to reduce the size of tumors.

Common uses

In India, nigella seeds are a favorite topping for breads like naan. They are also added to curries and pilafs. Nigella seeds can be used whole or ground. They are commonly included in the spice mix known as panch phoran, which also includes fenugreek and fennel seeds. The spice is a popular one for breads in many different food cultures; along with being used for naan, it shows up as an ingredient for Turkish breads and other breads throughout the Middle East. Another Middle Eastern use for it is in majdoul, which is a Lebanese string cheese. Similarly, it is used to flavor Armenian string cheese. In other parts of Europe, it is used as a substitute for caraway seeds in Jewish rye bread.

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