Daily Archives: October 15, 2008


The star of the show in a subzi that my mother makes with spring onions, and one of the 5 components of  paanchphoran, an aromatic spice mixture used in Bengali cuisine, kalaunji has a nice mild flavor.

The small black seeds that make up this spice are obtained from the Nigella Sativa plant. Variously referred to as black cumin, black caraway, and black sesame in English (none of those names are accurate, though when a Bengali talks of “kala jeera” she is in fact talking of nigella sativa seeds), they are also sometimes mistakenly defined as onion seeds. One more name- a nice one- for this plant is “love in the mist” !

In India kalaunji is used to flavor breads such as naan, pickles, vegetables, and of course the afore-mentioned paanchphoran.

Like many other spices, this one too has been used since ancient times in many parts of the world for its medicinal properties. In the Middle East it is known as the “Habbatul Barakah’, or the seed of blessing.

The active compounds -nigellone and thymoquinine- in the seeds and the oil have been shown in studies to have antioxidant , anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, anti-microbial and anti-tumor properties.  Perhaps this is why both the seeds and the oil find use in traditional remedies for the symptoms of a range of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, stomach ailments and skin conditions such as eczema and dandruff.

Nigella Sativa is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein, and it is also thought to help keep cholesterol and blood sugar levels low. The former may be due the high level of betasitosterol , a common plant sterol, that is present in this plant.

The sources I browsed:





One quite detailed article about nigella sativa which lists all its sources, is here: http://www.answers.com/topic/black-cumin-seed-extract


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Once again, there isn’t a great deal I was able to find out that would validate the claims made for another spice I use a lot – hing.

Here’s what I did find out.

I was surprised to learn that hing has been called some pretty uncomplimentary names in many languages, usually alluding to the devil: merde du diable (devil’s shit) in French, devil’s dung and stinking gum in English, Dyvelsträck in Swedish, and Seytantersi in Turkish, among others!

I quite like the aroma of this spice (admittedly quite strong) even before it is added to oil or hot water.  So this was news to me, that to so many people the smell of raw hing is not appealing at all. However, the flavor released after hing has been fried in a little bit of oil is described variously as being akin to that of shallots/leeks/garlic, and in fact the spice seems to be used by many – such as those communities in India that do not use onions and garlic in their cooking – for this reason.

The English name for hing -Asoefetidais derived from the Persian word “aza”, which means resin, and the Latin foetidus, for “stinking”.

This spice, reddish brown or yellow in color, is a gum resin obtained from the sap of the giant fennel plant Ferula Asoefetida , of the family Umbelliferae.  The entire plant gets used as a vegetable, and all its parts give off a strong odor, a result of the sulfur compounds that it contains. This plant is native to Iran and Afghanistan, though most of the raw asoefetida from these places is sent to India for further processing. In India this plant is grown in Kashmir.

Commercially available forms of this spice include both hard pieces of the resin, as well as a powder form in which the resin is mixed with rice flour and gum arabic, after being crushed.

Asoefetida, believed to aid digestion, is commonly used in Indian cooking, albeit usually only a pinch at a time, to prevent flatulence. It is also believed to be an effective anti-spasmodic.

In traditional medicine it is often used as an antidote to brochitis,asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. In earlier times in Europe, it’s strong smell was thought to repel germs, and to help calm episodes of hysteria.

And apparently court singers in the Mughal empire would habitually eat a spoon of asoefetida with butter in the belief that it improved their singing voice.






Filed under Exploring the Spice Shelf