Nigella has a pungent, peppery flavor, similar to a bitter pepper. Widely used in Indian cuisines, where is known as kalonji or wild onion seed, in curry mixtures, vegetable dishes, pickles and chutneys.
Not a common spice in Western cooking, nigella is easier to find in the stores specialized in ingredients from India, under the name kalonji or kala jeera (black cumin). Although nigella seeds are known as black cumin, or black onion seeds, their flavor is entirely different, close to that of pepper.
Nigella seeds are one of the ingredients in panch poron, the Bengali five spice mix.
This spice owes its name to the black color of its seeds, as the word nigella derives from the Latin word niger that means black.
How to Identify nigella
The spice nigella is the dried seeds from an herbaceous annual plant. The plant grows to 2 feet (about 60 cm) and has threaded leaves. The flowers come out in the summer, white and blue in color. The black seeds, contained in capsules, are tiny and round. Seeds need to be dried.
The plant is native to western Asia and southern Europe and it was cultivated along the Mediterranean area, where it grows well, now it is mainly grown in India, and a little in Egypt and the Middle East.
How to use and store
Store the seeds in an airtight container. Crush, if required. Flavor is better if the seeds are toasted gently before using.
Cooking with nigella
Add nigella to mildly spiced meat casseroles, especially lamb, and vegetable dishes. Nigella goes well with legumes and it is a popular spice to flavor lentil dishes. Pickles, relishes and chutneys acquire an interesting taste with the addition of nigella.
Use nigella where you would use black pepper. Experiment with nigella in cakes and breads.
Add a pinch of roasted nigella to your batter for an interesting flavor and crunchy texture in your deep fried fish or chicken.
Spicy okra with coconut
3 Tbs sesame seed of nut oil
1/2 tsp nigella
1/2 Tbs salt
1 dried red chili, without seeds
1 lb young okra, stems cut off and sliced lengthwise
1 Tbs descicated coconut
2 Tbs coconut milk
- Heat the oil in a wok, heavy base frying pan, or a skillet, until smoking hot.
- Add nigella seeds and chili. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Must be sizzling.
- Add okra. Reduce heat if necessary. Stir-fry for 7-8 minutes.
- Add coconut, coconut milk and salt. Stir fry for a further 8-10 minutes, or until coconut milk has evaporated and okra is tender.
Tip - Add a second chili, or use a stronger variety, if you like it really hot. Try different varieties such as the fiery hot Thai ones.
If your recipe calls for nigella and you don't have any at hand, you can substitute nigella seeds with the same quantity of black cumin seeds, ordinary cumin seeds, ajwain or caraway seeds. These will give you the texture although not the flavor. If flavor is what you are after, try freshly crushed black pepper.