Posted by: edibleplanet | April 16, 2010

Black Cumin

There is very little confusion about standard cumin – cumin is cumin. Black cumin is much more complicated.
Standard cumin is the dried fruits of the plant cuminum cyminum. It is used in many cuisines. We use it a lot when cooking Mexican dishes and Middle Eastern dishes.
Black cumin is used to describe a variety of different spices. So far this is what we have found out.
One of the spices known as black cumin is nigella. Nigella seeds come from the plant Nigella sativa. Nigella seeds have a variety of names (other than black cumin) such as black onion seeds and kolonji. It is also said calling nigella, black cumin, is incorrect. It seems bit unfair to say this surely if some people call them black cumin then they are also known as black cumin seeds. Nigella seeds flavour has sometimes been likened to cumin so maybe this is why they have been given the name, black cumin. We think nigella has a much sharper flavour than standard cumin.
So if nigella is the “incorrect” black cumin what is the correct black cumin?
Another spice known as black cumin is from the plant Bunium persicum. It is also called kala jeera. This spice looks quite similar to cumin and it is crescent shaped. It grows most commonly in Iran and India. This black cumin is quite aromatic when crushed.
But yes there is more.
Another spice called kali jeeri (kalijiri) is also known as black cumin. The names seem so close one could hope that they are the same thing but this spice comes from a different plant Centratherum Anthelminticum which is a Himalayan herb. It also looks different – like little brown isosceles triangles. Many references to this version of black cumin are medicinal or herbal remedies but just when we decided it was not for cooking we came across a reference saying it is used in some Punjabi dishes. This black cumin is really bitter.
Just when you think you have it figured out, kalijiri is Bengali for nigella seeds and Jefferson called nigella the nutmeg plant.
So if you have a recipe that calls for black cumin seeds – what do you use?
In most cases it seems the safest option is to use nigella. If it is a Northern Indian dish go with the kala jeera black cumin and obviously if the recipe gives you more hints as to what the black cumin should taste or look like, go with that.
If someone can clarify black cumin better, we’d definitely like to hear your thoughts.

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Responses

  1. Yeah… most of the time when you see “black cumin” it means shah/kala jeera. In all my years, I have only once seen “black cumin” used in English to refer to kalonji, and kali jeeri/kalijiri is only used in certain Punjabi dishes (usually with legumes or brassiaceae veggies to curb flatulence) of which transcripts are not-easily had on the web. Otherwise, kali jeeri/jiri is most-often used in Ayurvedic home remedies for its bitter principle-.

    Another spice with confusing names in English is ajwain (Trachyspermum copticum). It is sometimes translated as “lovage seeds”, but this is misleading as lovage is Levisticum officinale. Caraway- used in German and East European cooking- is another name sometimes used for it- along with “carom”, but caraway (Carum carvi) is not used in Indian cooking at all! And in addition, many European languages refer to caraway as a type of cumin… :-D

    Personally, I simplify things when writing a recipe in English by using the Hindi name- such as ajwain- to avoid confusion and the propagation of misnomer.

    • Glad to hear that we’re not the only ones who find this all confusing. The kali jeeri is incredibly bitter isn’t it? And I have seen Indian recipes that have caraway in them, so I’ll have to take those recipes with a pinch of salt (or cumin). Thanks for your comment!!

  2. When you see an Indian recipe that lists “caraway”, yes, always question it! I have seen it used to signify not only ajwain, but also kala/shah jeera- depending upon the writer! If possible, request a pic or description. But one rule of thumb is this: ajwain is seldom used in a tarka (frying spices in oil); most-often it is used raw for the top-notes, appearing quite often in northern pickle recipes or recipes duplicating a “pickle taste” with the adjective “achaari”; also it is used lightly-roasted in chaat masala. Kala jeera is used very-often in a tarka in place of white cumin, appearing most-frequently in dal and pulao (pilaf) recipes. Hope that helps.

  3. And yes, kalijiri is VERY bitter… It makes karela taste like a ladoo by comparison. ;-)


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