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Nigella (Nigella sativa L.)

Synonyms

AlbanianFara e zezë
Amharicጥቁር አዝሙድ
Tikur Azmud
Arabicحبة السوداء, حبة البركة, كمون اسود, شونيز
حَبَّة الْسَوْدَاء, حَبَّة الْبَرَكَة, كَمُّون أَسْوَد, شُونِيز
Habbet as-suda, Habbeh as-sudah, Habbet al-suda, Habbeh al-suda, Habbah sauda, Habbah al-baraka, Kamun aswad, Sanouz, Shuniz, Shunez, Sinouj
Assameseকালজিৰা
Kaljira
AzeriÇörək otu
Чөрәк оту
Bengaliকালো জিরা, কালোজিরা
Kalo jira
BulgarianЧелебитка посевна, Черен кимион
Chelebitka posevna, Cheren kimion
CatalanSanuj, Barba d’ermità
Chakma𑄇𑄣𑄎𑄨𑄢
Kalajira
Chinese
(Cantonese)
黑種草 [hàk júng chóu]
Hak jung chou
Chinese
(Mandarin)
黑種草 [hēi zhǒng cǎo]
Hei zhong cao
Copticϣⲟⲩⲛⲓⲥ, ⲥϯⲕⲉⲙⲉ
Shouniz, Stikeme
CroatianCrni kumin, Crnog kima
CzechČerný kmín, Černucha
DanishSortkommen
Dhivehiކަޅު ދިރި
Kalu dhiri
DutchNigelle, Narduszaad
EnglishFennel flower, Nutmeg flower, Onion seed, Gith; falsely Black Cumin, Black Caraway
EsperantoNigelo
EstonianMustköömen, Põld-mustköömen
Farsiسیاه دانه
Siah daneh
FinnishRyytineito, Sipulinsiemen, Rohtoneidonkukka, Mustakumina, Mustasiemen; Neidonkukka (applies to the whole genus)
FrenchCheveux de Vénus, Nigelle, Poivrette
GaelicLus an fhograidh
GermanZwiebelsame, Nigella, Schwarzkümmel
GreekΜελάνθιον, Μελάνθιο, Νιγκέλα
Melanthion, Melanthio, Ninkela
Hebrewקצח
קֶצַח
Ketzah, Qetsach
Hindiकलौंजी, कलोंजी
Kalaunji, Kalonji
HungarianFeketekömény, Parasztbors, Kerti katicavirág, Borzaskata mag
IndonesianJinten hitam
ItalianNigella, Grano nero
Japaneseニゲラ, ニジェーラ
Nigera, Nijera
Kannadaಕರಿ ಜೀರಿಗೆ
Kari jirige
KazakhСодана
Sodana
Korean블랙쿠민, 대회향, 니겔라, 흑종초
Pullaek-kumin, Tae-hoehyang, Nigella; Hukchongcho (Nigella damascena)
LatinGit
LatvianMelnsēklīte
LithuanianJuodgrūdė
Maithiliमङरैला
Mangrela
MalayJintan hitam, Habbatussauda
Malayalamകരിഞ്ചീരകം, കറുത്തജീരകം
Karinjeeragam, Karuta jirakam
Nepaliमुग्रेलो, मुन्ग्रेलो
Mugrelo, Mungrelo
Newari
(Nepalbhasa)
मुग्रेला, हाजी, हजि
Mugrela, Haji
NorwegianSvartkarve
Oriyaକଳାଜୀରା
Kalajira
PolishCzarnuszka siewna
PortugueseNigela, Cominho-preto
Punjabiਕਲੌਂਜੀ
Kalaunji
RomanianChimion negru, Negrilică, CernușcăCernuşcă
RussianЧернушка, Нигелла, Калинджи
Chernushka, Nigella, Kalindzhi
SerbianЋурукота, Чурукот, Чурекот, Црно семе, Црњика храпава
Ćurukota, Ćurukot, Čurekot, Crno seme, Crnjika hrapava
Sinhalaකලුදුරු
Kaluduru
SlovakČernuška siata, Černuška, Černuška damascénska, Egyptská čierna rasca
SlovenianVzhodna črnika
SpanishNiguilla, Pasionara
SwedishSvartkummin
Tamilகருஞசீரகம்
Karunjiragam
Teluguనల్లజీలకర్ర
Nallajilakarra
Thaiเทียนดำ
Thian dam
Tibetanཟི་ར་ནག་པོ་
Zira nagpo
Tuluಕಾಳಜೀರಿಗೆ
Kalajirige
TurkishÇörek otu, Çöreotu, Çörekotu tohumu, Ekilen, Hakiki çöreotu, Kara çörek otu, Siyah kimyon, Siyah susam
UkrainianЧорнушка посівна, Чорний кмин
Chornushka posivna, Chornyj kmyn
Urduکلونجی
Kalonji
VietnameseThì là đen
Thi la den
Yiddishניגעלע, טשערניטשקע
Nigele, Tshernitshke

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)
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: Flower
Flower of N. arvensis

Nigella sativa: Flower of Spanish Fennel
Flower of N. hispanica
Nigella damascena: Devil in the bush (love in a mist)
Flower of N. damascena

Nigella ciliaris: Flower
Flower of N. ciliaris
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. Most curious is the name nutmeg flower, which is quite dangerous to use because a host of European languages denotes mace as flower of nutmeg or similar.

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

Moreover, nigella is sometimes confused with black sesame seeds; occasonally, it is even named such. More rarely, there is confusion with ajwain, which in some languages bears similar names; ajwain itself is notorious for being confounded with numerous other plants.

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-edged seed grains.

Plant family

Ranunculaceae (buttercup family).

Sensory 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.

Nigella sativa: ‘Black cumin’ (onion seed) flower
Nigella flower (culinary)
Nigella sativa: Unripe black cumin capsule
Unripe Nigella capsule (culinary)
Nigella sativa: Unripe ‘Black Cumin Seeds’ capsules
Nigella plant with unripe seed pods
Main constituents

The seeds contain numerous esters of structurally unusual unsaturated fatty acids with terpene alcohols (7%); furthermore, traces of alkaloids are found which belong to two different types: iso­chinoline al­kaloids are repre­sented by nigellimin and nigellimin-N-oxide, and pyrazol alkaloids include nigellidin and nigellicin.

In the essential oil (avr. 0.5%, max. 1.5%), thymo­quinone was identified as the main component (up to 50%) besides p-cymene (40%), α-pinene (up to 15%), 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. On storage, thymo­quinone yields di­thymo­quinone and higher oligo­condensation products (nigellone).

The seeds also contain a fatty oil rich in unsaturated fatty acids, mainly linoleic acid (50 – 60%), oleic acid (20%), eicodadienoic acid (3%) 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, by which it acquires an aromatic flavour.

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. Most of the names have a second part that means cumin, caraway or simply grain.

languagenameblack
German Schwarzkümmel schwarz
Norwegian svartkarve 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 [чорнушка] chornyj [чорний]
Russian chernushka [чернушка] chyornyj [чёрный]
Czech černý kmín černý
Slovak černuška cern, cernoch
Slovenian vzhodna črnika črn
Croatian crni kumin crn
Serbian crno seme [црно семе] crn [црн]
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 [سیاوصة] siawa [سیاو]
Sanskrit krishnajira [कृष्णजीर] krishna [कृष्ण]
Hindi kalaunji [कलौंजी] kala [काला]
Panjabi kalonji [ਕਲੌਂਜੀ] kala [ਕਾਲਾ]
Sinhala kaladuru [කලාදුලු] kalu [කලු]
Kannada kari jirige [ಕರಿ ಜೀರಿಗೆ] karidu [ಕರಿದು]
Malayalam karinjirakam [കരിഞ്ചീരകം] kari [കരി]
Chinese hei zhong cao [黑種草] hei []
Thai thian-dam [เทียนดำ] dam [ดำ]
Indonesian jintan hitam hitam

Nigella hispanica: Spanish fennel flowers
Related species N. hispanica (Spain)
Nigella ciliaris: Split-open pod
Capsule of N. ciliaris
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 Finnish, there is the analogous name musta siemen. In Italian, the similar name grani neri black grains is used. Cf. also Chinese hei zhong cao [黑種草] black plant seeds.

The colour adjective black (Old English blæc) is unique to English; it derives from a Proto-Indo–European root BʰEL burn that, quite confusingly, also gave rise to bleach (Old English blǣcan), where the common concept seems to be the lack of true colour, and blue (see white mustard and blue fenugreek for further related colour names). The more common Old English term for black, sweart, is only conserved in the archaic swarthy dark, but its cognates are found in most other Germanic languages, e. g., Dutch zwart, Yiddish shvarts [שוואַרץ], Swedish svart and German schwarz (Old High German swarz), going back to Common Germanic SWARTA. The word is mainly Germanic; a possible non-Germanic relative is Latin sordes dirt.

The Romance terms for black (Italian nero, French noir, Romanian negru) derive from Latin niger. One theory links it to night (Old English nēah) and its cognates in many other languages, e. g., Latin nox, Greek nyx [νύξ] and Sanskrit nakta [नक्त] (Proto-Indo–European root NOKʷT dark, dim). Yet another theory holds that niger belongs to the group of Latin nocere to do harm and Greek nekros [νεκρός] corpse and thus to the Proto-Indo–European root NEḰ kill, death. In Portuguese, black is negro or preto, where the latter appears related to black.

Nigella sativa: Nigella capsules (qetsach)
Ripening nigella capsules

In the Slavonic tongues, the words for black are rather similar and have a common origin: Serbo­croatian crn [црн], Russian chyornyj [чёрный], Czech černý and Polish czarny derive from an Proto-Indo–European root KER burn, fire, which has representatives in many languages: Lithuanian karštis heat, Latin cremare burn, combust (thence ceramics) and carbo charcoal, Old Norse hyrr fire and English herth (Old English heorþ). This is related to Sanskrit krishna [कृष्ण] dark, black, which is also the name of a deity in the Hindu pantheon (avatar of Vishnu), who got this name due to his dark blue complexion. See also black pepper and black mustard for more Sanskrit names with the krishna element. See also mugwort for another related Slavonic plant name, chernobyl.

Among the Indian names for Nigella, three different groups can be isolated, besides several singularities: In the North-West, a cluster is found exemplified by Hindi, Punjabi und Urdu kalaunji [कलौंजी, ਕਲੌਂਜੀ, کلونجی]; east of that, but still in the very North, the spice bears a different name, e. g., Nepali mugrelo [मुग्रेलो] or Maithili (Bihari) mangrela [मङरैला]. In the North-East and the South of the subcontinent, the dominating names are of the type of Bengali kalo jira [কালো জিরা], Oriya kala jira [କଳାଜୀରା], Kannada kari jirige [ಕರಿ ಜೀರಿಗೆ] or Tamil karunjiragam [கருஞசீரகம்]; all these mean black cumin and, thus, can lead to confusion with another spice that stems from the North-Western Himalaya and is usually referred by similar names in the local languages (and also on this page): Black cumin (Hindi, Panjabi kala jira [काला जीरा, ਕਾਲਾ ਜੀਰਾ], Urdu kala zira [کالازیرہ], Nepali kalo jira [कालो जीरा]).

Nigella damascena: Pods of Devil in the bush
Ripe fruit capsules of ornamental N. damascena (Love in a mist)

The old‑fash­ioned English plant 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 borrowed from a Semitic tongue of the Eastern Medi­terranean (cf. Hebrew gad [גד] coriander). 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.

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.

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 or Gretchen im Busch Maggie in the bush. I don’t know what these are motivated by.

Selected Links

The Epicentre: Nigella Pflanzen des Capitulare de Villis: Schwarzkümmel (biozac.de) Sorting Nigella names (www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au) Introduction to Bengali Cooking (milonee.net) Rezept von goccus.com: Panch phoron [পাঁচ ফোরন] Recipe: Shukto [শুকতো] (userpages.umbc.edu) Recipe: Shukto [শুকতো] (www.bawarchi.com) Recipe: Stuffed Parwal [पर्वाल] (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: Late flowering black cumin plants
Nigella plants at the end of their flowering period
Nigella sativa: ‘Black cumin’ (onion seed) plants
Flowering culinary nigella

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, Lebanon and Iran. Turkish bread frequently shows the charac­teristi­cally shaped black grains; another spice sometimes used to flavour Near Eastern bread is mahaleb cherry stones.

From Iran, nigella usage has spread to Northern India, particularly 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, Orissa and Sikkim, as well as in Bangladesh and Southern Nepal, a spice mixture made from five spices is very popular: Panch phoran [পাঁচ ফোরন or পাঁচ ফোড়ন], better known under its name in Hindi panch phoron [पांच फोरोन]. It is used 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 [রাধুনি] 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, more akin to the aroma celery seeds which I recommend as a substitute; it does, however, also exhibit a pungency comparable to that of ajwain.

Nigella sativa: Panchphoron fivespice
Indian panch phoron five spice mixture

Panch phoron lends a subtle and harmonic flavour to the foods, chiefly vegetables and fish. 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 rôle 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. Asafetida is popular in places where cooks of other Indian regions would employ garlic. Bengalis are also fond of poppy seeds.

Nigella sativa: Black cumin flower
Nigella flower (plant grown from the spice 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 [শুকতো] is a spicy vegetable curry which acquires a distinct bitter flavour from korola [করোলা] (Hindi karela [करेला], bitter melon, bitter gourd, Momordica charantia); the bitter­ness can be controlled by marinating karela in a mixture of salt and turmeric. Potol [পটল] (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 vegetarianism. 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.

A variety of the panch phoron spice mixture is used in Southern Nepal, where it is known by its Maithili name panch phorana [पंच फोरना]. Here, the radhuni is not substituted by mustard seeds but by a spice closer to the original taste, namely ajwain. After frying in mustard oil, it is mainly used for the vegetable curries (e. g., potato curry) that are served as part of the typical meals of that region, dal bhat tarkari [दाल भात तरकारी] legumes, rice and curry.



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