Nigella (Nigella sativa)
Nigella plants are cultivated for their seeds which are used mainly in Indian cooking. The small black seeds are sometimes confused with black onion seeds.
Nigella seeds have a nutty, sweet flavour with earthy, bitter and peppery tones. Their taste is sometimes compared to oregano or carrots.
Nigella seeds have little aroma though when rubbed between your fingers they give off a peppery scent.
Nigella seeds are an essential ingredient in the Bengali spice mix, panch phoron, which also includes mustard seeds, cumin, fennel and fenugreek. On their own, nigella seeds are used in vegetable curries, pickles, chutneys and breads, including naan bread. In some countries, nigella is used as a substitute for pepper. In the Middle East, nigella seeds are often combined with sesame seeds and used to garnish breads, cakes, potatoes and omelettes. Nigella seeds pair well with pulses, rice and vegetables and they marry with allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, thyme and turmeric.
Nigella belongs to the Ranunculaceae family and is native to southern Europe, north Africa and Asia. The plant grows to between 20-90cm tall with divided, thread-like leaves and white, yellow, pink, pale blue or pale purple flowers. Seed capsules are harvested before they burst and then dried and crushed, releasing the seeds. The seeds are black, small and tear-drop shaped.
Nigella seeds were discovered in Tutankahmen’s tomb, they were mentioned in the Bible book of Isaiah and were used in Roman times by herbalists. Other names for the plant include ‘devil-in-a-bush’ and ‘love-in-a-mist’. These days India is the largest producer of nigella.
Nigella is used in traditional Indian herbal medicine as a treatment for intestinal disorders including flatulence, indigestion and bowel problems.
Facts about Nigella
Nigella is sometimes used as an insect repellent, particularly to detract mothballs.
What other spices can replace nigella seeds?
If you don’t have nigella seeds on hand, you can also use black cumin, black pepper, black onion seeds or mustard seeds.