The low-down on nigella seeds

“I’m expecting to see nigella seeds become more widespread. I’ll be blitzing them into a coarse powder and using them to dust battered fish.”

Oklava Selin Kiazim, of Oklava, quoted in Food And Travel, January 2020

It all began with a book about turmeric. There was a suggestion for a cabbage salad to go with a dish of white fish with turmeric and I began to play about with the salad. Gradually it morphed to become A Yoghurty Savoy Cabbage Salad of White Onions and Black Onion Seeds.

This salad turned out to be, somewhat unexpectedly (I don’t have great expectations of cabbage), a great success with both myself and the Chief Taster. As I relate in the post about the recipe: “There’s something a bit different in here,” mused the Chief Taster, as he dug in, “it’s a bit of a surprise…you could use this on all kinds of things….not on everything. They’re a bit like capers, you need to use them judiciously.”

I resolved to research, and this is what I discovered.

The many and varied names of nigella

I’d never heard of black onion seeds, but I had heard of nigella seeds and this is the term, aside from its botanical name, Nigella Sativa, which is most commonly used. Others are kalonji, black cumin, black caraway, black onion seed. They’re certainly black, so it’s not surprising that most names recall their colour in some way or other. Nigella is derived from the Latin, niger, meaning ‘black’. Kalaunji is the name in Hindi, and kalonji the name in Punjabi – in both languages kala means ‘black’. In Poland, where the seeds are used a lot in cooking, they are called czarnuszka, with czarny meaning ‘black’.

If you go to Gernot Katzer’s outstanding blog on spices (follow this link for the post on nigella seeds) you will find a whole table of different names for nigella, together with their roots and meanings.

What exactly is nigella?

Nigella Sativa is nothing to do with onions!

Nigella grows all over the middle-east, India, and southern Europe and Asia. Do not confuse it with Nigella Damascene – a purely ornamental plant with a lovely blue flower, grown commonly in English country gardens and commonly known as Love-In-A-Mist. Both are part of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family in botanical terms.

Pale blue or white flowers appear in July and by September the petals are lost and the seed capsule remains. The capsules are harvested before they burst, then dried and threshed, and the seeds removed.

nigella seeds
Pale blue or white flowers appear in July. Image courtesy of AndreHolz at English Wikipedia .CC.

Nigella seeds have been used for centuries: they’re mentioned in the bible; and the prophet Muhammad claimed they had extensive healing powers – he is quoted on IslamWeb as saying:

“Use this Black Seed regularly, because it is a cure for every disease, except death.”.

Very little scientific research has been carried out regarding the health benefits of nigella, but these days the fashion is for nigella seed oil which is said to help cure rheumatoid arthritis, allergic rhinitis, diabetes, asthma and obesity – go to the Very Well Health site for more information.

Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, authors of Domestication of Plants in the Old World, tell us that nigella seeds were also found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh ruling 1332–1323 BC.

nigella seeds
Ankhesenamen must have been giving Tutankhamun Nigella Sativa flowers so that he could use the seeds for after-life cuisine.

The taste and scent

Not surprisingly there are varying opinions on the scent and flavour of nigella, although there is consensus regarding there being a taste of onion (real onion seeds, incidentally, have no taste).

Wikipedia tells us that they taste like “a combination of onions, black pepper and oregano. They have a pungent bitter taste and smell”. Other sources mention a certain nuttiness, a taste of cumin and poppy seeds.

Personally I find the main effects of nigella seeds are an earthy bitterness; the onion flavour, but again not bright but more earthy; and the nearly-crunchiness.

And, of course, they also have a lot of Wow! factor visual effect, especially when sprinkled over something which is a white, cream, or light colour.

To dry fry or not to dry fry

Some authorities advise against dry frying (or toasting) the seeds – Lior Lev Sercarz, a chef and owner of a specialist spice shop in New York, states in his book, The Spice Companion, ‘toasting not recommended’. Others say it doesn’t make much difference. But I agree with most that their flavour is improved by very light (we’re talking seconds) dry frying – it brings out the onion flavour.

Nigella seeds form part of the five seed mix, panch phoran

To make this mix, combine equal parts of nigella seeds with fennel, brown mustard and cumin seeds, and a half part of fenugreek seeds.

Dry fry and crush in a pestle and mortar, then use as a rub. Or sprinkle over roast or fried potatoes. Or use in any of the ways described below.

Nigella seeds are part of the five-seed mix, panch phoran.

Ideas for how to cook with nigella seeds

Nigella seeds sprinkled over avocado toast with pickled red onion.
Nigella seeds sprinkled over avocado toast with pickled red onion.

Music to listen to

Sprinkle these delightful seeds with abandon, and listen to Amy Winehouse singing Back to Black as you do so.

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I love that your article is full of excellent stuff and insights. Keep up! More power!

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