Let’s talk about nigella. No – not the famous food personality. I mean the spice.

I found a chef who loves nigella the spice (I did not ask him about Nigella Lawson), and we talked about this little-known wonder.

Richard Ruben, author of The Farmer’s Market Cookbook, told me he first loved nigella because it “called to him” from the spice shelves, alerting him to the fact that perhaps he did not know the spice.

But then he realised that he did know it. 

He had been visited by the spice all his life as charnushka, a topping for the traditional Eastern European rye bread that was always in his mother’s breadbasket.”It was like finally putting a face with the voice. I am now surprised how often I encounter these seeds, primary on breads from rye to naan to pita,” he says. 

“I was quite intrigued by this mysterious seed that I now connected with Eastern Europe and the foods of the subcontinent. Then I found it was commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine.”That is where I first found out about nigella, too – on Middle Eastern breads – and then I noticed that my mother used it in Indian preparations as well.

Commonly known as nigella, this spice is also found under the name “onion seeds”. But as Ruben correctly pointed out to me, these seeds bear no botanical connection to the ubiquitous allium that he uses daily. 

The plant they come from is actually related to buttercups. It is also sometimes referred to as black cumin or black caraway, but again, it is related to neither.I have always loved the nutty, peppery flavour of these tiny, flat black seeds, but I’ve also always been a bit wary of using too much of them, as they add a lot of bitterness really quickly.

In working with nigella, Ruben said, he finds them to be slightly bitter/smoky with an herbaceous note reminiscent of oregano. When ground as part of a seasoning mix, that herby quality acts as a primary fragrance.

Ruben and I prefer using the seeds whole, not only for the complex taste but also for the texture.

When buying nigella, think small – a little goes a long way. Ruben advises storing it in the freezer, since exposure to light and heat releases the volatile oils – thus, in turn, removing the sought-after fragrance.

When using nigella, warm it first. “If I am using nigella seeds as a finish as I do with roasted potatoes, I gently toast them before sprinkling them over the finished dish,” says Ruben.

It is easily available at Indian grocers.

~Monica Bhide, AAP

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