(black seed)

Nigella (Nigella sativa L.)

Synonyms

Nigella sativa: 'Black cumin' (onion seed) flower
Nigella flower (culinary)
Nigella sativa: Unripe black cumin capsule
Unripe Nigella capsule (culinary)
Nigella damascena: Devil in the bush (love in a mist)
Ornamental N. damascena flower
Amharic ጥቁር አዝሙድ
  Tikur Azmud
Arabic حبة السوداء, حبة البركة, كمون اسود, شونيز
  حَبَّة السَّوْدَاء, حَبَّة البَرَكَة, كَمُّون أَسْوَد, شُونِيز
  Habbet al-suda, Habbeh al-sudah, Habbah sauda, Habbah el baraka, Kamun aswad, Sanouz, Shuniz, Shunez, Sinouj
Bulgarian
  Chelebitka posevna
Catalan Sanuj, Barba d'ermità
Croatian Crni kumin, Crnog kima
Czech Černý kmín, Černucha, Černucha
Danish Sortkommen
Dutch Nigelle, Narduszaad
English Fennel flower, Onion seed, Gith; falsely Black Cumin, Black Caraway
Esperanto Nigelo
Estonian Mustköömen
Farsi سیاه دانه
  Siah daneh
Finnish Ryytineito, Sipulinsiemen, Rohtoneidonkukka, Mustakumina; Neidonkukka (applies to the whole genus)
French Cheveux de Vénus, Nigelle, Poivrette
Gaelic Lus an fhograidh (Nigella damascena)
German Zwiebelsame, Nigella, Schwarzkümmel
Greek Μελάνθιον, Νιγκέλα
  Melanthion, Ninkela
Hebrew קצח
  Ketzah, Qetsach
Hindi Kalounji, Munga reala
Hungarian Feketekömény, Parasztbors, Kerti katicavirág, Borzaskata mag
Indonesian Jinten hitam
Italian Nigella, Grano nero
Japanese ニゲラ, ニジェーラ
  Nigera, Niziera
Kannada ಕರಿ ಜೀರಿಗೆ
  Kari jirige
Kazakh
  Sodana
Latvian Melnsēklīte
Lithuanian Juodgrūdė
Malay Jintan hitam
Malayalam Karun jiragam
Norwegian Svartkarve
Polish Czarnuszka siewna
Portuguese Nigela, Cominho-preto
Punjabi Kalongi
Romanian Cernuşcă, Negrilică
Russian
  Chernushka
Singhalese Kaluduru
Slovak Černuška siata
Slovenian Vzhodna črnika
Spanish Niguilla, Pasionara
Swedish Svartkummin
Tamil கருஞசீரகம்
  Karunjiragam
Telugu Nellajilakaira
Turkish Çörek oto, Çöreotu, Çörekotu tohumu, Ekilen, Hakiki çöreotu, Kara çörek otu, Siyah kimyon, Siyah susam
Ukrainian
  Chornushka posivna


Nigella damascena: Pods of Devil in the bush
Ripe fruit capsules of ornamental N. damascena (Love in a mist)
Nigella damascena: Devil in the bush, love in a mist
Ornamental N. damascena flowers
Nigella ciliaris: Pinwheel Nigella
Related species N. ciliaris (West Asia)
Nigella arvensis: Wild Fennel, Field nigella
Related species N. arvensis (Europe)
Nigella hispanica: Spanish fennel flower and pod
Spanish fennel flower and fruit capsule (N. hispanica)

Note

There is a lot of confusion about the names of this spice: It is referred by a multitude of names which, in other sources, might mean something else entirely. In some English sources, it is called black cumin, but I think this is a poor choice, as the name black cumin is already reserved for another, somewhat obscure, spice from Central Asia and Northern India. I have also read the name black caraway (for its usage, together with caraway, in Jewish rye breads) and black onion seed (motivated by the similarity to the seeds of onion); but there is no botanical relation between nigella and any of these plants.

In the USA, nigella is often known as charnushka (deriving from the Russian name chernushka [] and probably introduced into American English by Armenian emigrants). The Hindi term kalonji is widely used by Indians even when speaking English.

I have decided to stick with the more neutral botanical name Nigella, mainly on the reason that this name cannot so easily be confounded with anything else.

Note, however, that there are several Nigella species besides N. sativa; the second most important species seems to be N. damascena, a common ornamental in Europe. By the use of the genus name for the spice, I do not imply that all members of the genus can be used culinarily. The seeds of N. damascena do have some flavour, but I find them inferior to those of the true spice N. sativa.

Nigella sativa: Black onion seeds (falsely 'black cumin')
Nigella seeds

Used plant part

The deep black, sharp-cornered seed grains.

Plant family

Ranunculaceae (buttercup family).

Sensoric quality

Nigella seeds have little odour, but when ground or chewed they develop a vaguely oregano-like scent. The taste is aromatic and slightly bitter; I have seen it called pungent and smoky and even compared to black pepper, but I cannot agree with that comparison.

There is, however, some pungency in unripe or not yet dried seeds.

Main constituents

The seeds contain numerous esters of structurally unusual unsaturated fatty acids with terpene alcohols (7%); fatty oil content is about 40%. Furthermore, traces of alkaloids (nigelline-N-oxide, nigellone, nigellimine) are reported.

In the essential oil (avr. 0.5%, max. 1.5%), thymoquinone was identified as the main component (up to 50%) besides p-cymene (30%), α-pinene (10%), dithymoquinone and thymohydroquinone. Other terpene derivatives were found only in trace amounts: Carvacrol, carvone, limonene, 4-terpineol, citronellol. Furthermore, the essential oil contains significant (10%) amounts of fatty acid ethyl esters.

The seeds also contain a fatty oil rich in unsaturated fatty acids, mainly linoleic acid (50  60%), oleic acid (20%) and dihomolinoleic acid (10%) which is characteristic for the genus. Saturated fatty acids (palmitic, stearic acid) amount to about 30% or less. Commercial nigella oil (Black Seed Oil, Black Cumin Oil) may also contain parts of the essential oil, mostly thymoquinone.

Origin

Probably Western Asia. Although nigella is not mentioned in the common Bible translations, there is good evidence that an obscure plant name mentioned in the Old Testament means nigella; if true, this would indicate that nigella is cultivated since far more than two millennia (see pomegranate).

Today, the plant is cultivated from Egypt to India.

Etymology

Nearly all names of nigella contain an element meaning black in reference to the unusually dark colour of the seeds. The following table compares some names of Nigella to local term for black.

Nigella sativa: Late flowering black cumin plants
Nigella plants at the end of their flowering period
German Schwarzkümmel schwarz
Norwegian swartkarve svart
Swedish svartkummin svart
Latvian melnsēklīte melns
Lithuanian juodgrūdė juodas
Estonian mustköömen must
Finnish mustakumina musta
Hungarian feketeköméni fekete
Latin Nigella niger
Italian grano nero nero
Spanish niguilla negro
Portuguese cominho-preto preto
Romanian negrillică negru
Polish czarnuszka czarny
Ukrainian chornushka [] chornyj []
Russian chernushka [] chyornyj []
Czech černý kmín černý
Slovak černuška cern, cernoch
Slovenian vzhodna črnika črn
Croatian crni kumin crn
Greek melanthion [μελάνθιον] melas [μέλας]
Arabic kamun aswad [كمون اسود] aswad [اسود]
Amharic tik'ur azmud [ጥቁር አዝሙድ] tik'ur [ጥቁር]
Turkish kara çörek otu kara
Turkish siyah kimyon siyah
Farsi siah daneh [سیاه دانه] siah [سیاه]
Kurdish siawasa [سياوصة] siawa [سياو]
Hindi kalonji [कलौंजी] kala [काला]
Sinhala kaladuru [කලාදුලු] kalu [කලු]
Kannada Kari jirige [ಕರಿ ಜೀರಿಗೆ] karidu [ಕರಿದು]
Malayalam karinjirakam [കരിഞ്ചീരകം] kari [കരി]
Indonesian jintan hitam hitam

Nigella hispanica: Spanish fennel flowers
Related species N. hispanica (Spain)
Nigella sativa: Nigella capsules (qetsach)
Ripening nigella capsules

With the growing popularity of nigella seed oil as a natural remedy, new names for this spice have been devised that are more easy to remember and do not sound foreign. In English, it is often simply called black seeds (cf. blackseed oil); in Italian, the analogous formation grani neri black grains is used.

Onion seed (or German Zwiebelsame or Finnish sipulinsiemen) refers to the similarity with the seed of onion plants. The latter, however, are tasteless and cannot be used as a spice.

The old-fashioned English name gith can be traced back to a black-seeded herb mentioned by Plinius; he renders the name as gith or git, which is probably loaned from a Semitic tongue of the Eastern Mediterranean. The same name is used by Charlemagne in his Capitulare de Villis for nigella (see lovage). In modern English, gith is more often used for corn cockle (Agrostemma githago) also distinguished by black seeds, which, however, contain toxic saponines.

Ornamental breeds of the closely related species N. damascena are known as Devil in the bush or Love in a mist; in German, there are comparably poetic names like Jungfer im Grünen (Danish jomfru i det grønne) Maiden in the green oder Gretchen im Busch Maggie in the bush. I don't know what these are motivated by.

Selected Links

The Epicentre: Nigella Nature One Health: Fennel Flower Pflanzen des Capitulare de Villis: Schwarzkümmel (biozac.de) Sorting Nigella names (gmr.landfood.unimelb.edu.au) Introduction to Bengali Cooking (milonee.net) Recipe: Shukto (userpages.umbc.edu) Recipe: Shukto (www.bawarchi.com) Recipe: Stuffed Parwal (www.bangalinet.com) Some Bengali Fish and Prawn Recipes (www.bangalinet.com) Recipe: Bengal Carp Curry (shaboomskitchen.com) Recipe: Mutton Kolthapuri Collection of Bengali Recipes (groups.google.com)


Nigella sativa: 'Black cumin' (onion seed) plants
Flowering culinary nigella
Nigella sativa: Panchphoron fivespice
Indian panch phoron five spice mixture
Nigella sativa: Black cumin flower
Nigella flower (plant grown from the spice seeds)

Nigella is mentioned in the Bible, but today it is well known not only in Western, but also in Central and South Asia; its main application area is Turkey, Libanon and Iran. Turkish bread frequently shows the characteristically shaped black grains; another spice sometimes used to flavour Near Eastern bread are mahaleb cherry stones.

From Iran, nigella usage has spread to Northern India, particularily Punjab and Bengal. The spice is mostly used for vegetable dishes; i Think it tastes best with aubergines and pumpkin, of which there are many varieties in Bengal. Lake many other Indian spices, nigella develops its flavour best after short toasting in a hot dry pan, or short frying in a little oil (see also cumin).

In the Indian union states West Bengal and Sikkim, as well as in Bangladesh, a spice mixture named panch phoron (five spices) is very popular, both for meats and vegetables. The composition mostly given in the literature is whole nigella, fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seeds and fennel at equal parts; but this is not the authentic recipe. In Bengal, cooks use a spice called radhuni for that mixture, which is replaced by black mustard seeds elsewhere, as radhuni is hardly available outside Bengal, even in the rest of India. Radhuni is the dried fruits of Trachyspermum roxburghianum (syn. Carum roxburghianum), a relative of ajwain and caraway; its flavour is, however, very unlike the former two and more resembles celery seeds which I recommend as a substitute.

Panch phoron lends a subtle and harmonic flavour to the foods. It is always fried in oil before usage; in Bengal, cooks almost invariably use mustard oil for that purpose. Another flavouring typical for Bengal is a pungent mustard paste made from black mustard seeds; such mustard pastes play no rôe in other regions of India. Put together, use of panch phoron and mustard products make up for much of the typical character of Bengali food; on the other hand, strong spices like chiles or garlic and also the aromatic spices typical for other North Indian cooking styles (cloves or cinnamon) are used with discretion, but asafetida is popular in places where cooks of other Indian regions would employ garlic. Bengalis are also fond of poppy seeds.

There are many interesting and original vegetable foods in Bengali cooking, some of which make use of vegetables little known outside of Bengal: Shukto is a spicy vegetable curry which acquires a distinct bitter flavour from korola (Hindi karela [करेला], bitter melon, bitter gourd, Momordica charantia); the bitternes can be controlled by marinating karela in a micture of salt and turmeric. Potol (Hindi parval [पर्वाल], snake gourd, Trichosanthes dioica) is a small-fruited pumpkin relative that is very popular in Bengal for curries and for stuffing, either with ground meats or with cottage cheese.

Yet Bengal has also a large variety of non-vegetarian foods, as it has a low proportion of vegetarians; even most Bengali brahmins, unlike the brahmins of most other Indian regions, do not adhere to vegetarism. Fish is very popular, especially fresh water fish, and is often braised in a subtly flavoured butter-tomato sauce; similar recipes are also known for chicken. Lastly, one must mention the numerous Bengali sweets, many of which are based on milk products; see kewra flowers for more. www.molites.narod.ru