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Ajwain (Trachyspermum copticum [L.] Link)

Synonyms

botanicalCarum copticum (L.) Benth. & Hook. f., Carum copticum (L.) C.B. Clarke, Carum ajowan, Ptychotis ajowan, Trachyspermum ammi (L.) Sprague
pharmaceuticalFructus Ajowani
Amharicነጭ አዝሙድ
Netch Azmud
Arabicاجوان, كمون الملوكي, نخوه
كَمُّون الْمُلُوكِي
Ajwan, Kamun al-muluki, Taleb el koubs, Nakhwah, Nahwah
Assameseজনী গুটি
Joni guti
Bengaliজোয়ান
Joyan, Jowan
BretonAjowan
BulgarianАжгон
Azhgon
Chinese
(Cantonese)
印度藏茴香 [yan douh jòhng wùih hēung]
Yan douh johng wuih heung
Chinese
(Mandarin)
印度藏茴香 [yìn dù zàng huí xiāng]
Yin du zang hui xiang
CzechAdžvajen
Dhivehiހިތި ދަމުއި
Hithi dhamui
Dogriअजवाइन, जवाईन
Ajvain, Javain
DutchAjowan
EnglishCarom, Ajowan, Bishop’s Weed, Ajwan; falsely lovage seeds
EstonianLõhnav karusköömen
Farsiزنیان
Nanavva, Zenian
FinnishKoptilainen kumina
FrenchAjowan
GermanAdiowan, Ajowan, Königskümmel, Indischer Kümmel
Greek (Old)Ἄμμιος
Ammios
Gujaratiઅજમો, અજમા
Ajmo, Ajma
Hindiअजवाइन, अजवान, अजवायन
Ajvain, Ajvan, Ajvayan
HungarianAjovan
IndonesianJintan
ItalianAjowan
Japaneseアジョワン
Ajowan
Kannadaಅಜಮೋದ, ಓಮಾ
Ajamoda, Oma
Kashmiriجاویند, جیون, جاوود
Javind, Jeven, Javeed
KazakhАжгон
Ajgon
Korean아요완
Ayowan
LithuanianTikrasis šventkmynis, Indiškas kmynas
Maithiliजमाइन, जमाईन
Jamain
Malayalamഅയമോദകം, ഓമം
Ayamodagam, Omam
Manipuri (Meitei-Lon)অজৱায়ন
ꯑꯖꯋꯥꯌꯟ
Ajvayan
Marathiओवा
Ova
Nepaliजवानो, ज्वानो
Javano, Jvano
Newari
(Nepalbhasa)
इमु
Imu
Oriyaଜୁଆଣୀ
Juani
PolishAjowan, Kminek koptyjski, Adżwan
PortugueseOrégano-semente, Semente-de-orégano, Ajowan
Punjabiਐਜਵਾਇਨ, ਜਵੈਣ, ਅਜਵਾਇਣ
Aijvain, Javain, Ajvain
RomanianChimion Indian
RussianАйова, Ажгон
Ajova, Azhgon
SanskritYavaanika, Ugragandha, Brahmadarbha, Ajmodika, Deepyaka, Yavsaha
Sinhalaඅසමෝදගම්
Asamodagam
Slovakfalsely Ligurčekové semeno
SpanishAjowan, Ayowam
TajikАжгон, Зираи кирмони
Azhgon, Zirai kirmoni
Tamilஓமம்
Omam
TeluguOmamu, Vamu, Vayu
Thaiชีลาว
Chilau
Tibetanལ་ལ་ཕུད་
La-la phuda
Tuluಓಮ
Oma
TurkishMısır anason, Emmus, Nanavah†
Urduاجوائن
Ajwain
UzbekАжгон
Azhgon
Trachyspermum ammi: Ajwain inflorescence (umbel)
Ajwan flowering umbel
Note

Ajwain is one of those spices that are very often confused with other plants, despite its un­ambigous English name. Literature has examples of mis­identifi­cation with other spices (celery, lovage, nigella) and even non­culinary plants (gout­weed, tooth­pick­weed). See the etymology section for more details.

Carum copticum/Trachyspermum copticum: Ajwain fruits
Dried ajwain fruits (often termed ajwain seeds)
Used plant part

The small, caraway-like fruits. These are sometimes mislabelled as lovage seed, although the fruits of lovage are, to my knowledge, not traded at all.

Plant family

Apiaceae (parsley family).

Sensory quality

Similar to thyme, but stronger and less subtle.

Main constituents

The essential oil (2.5 to 5% in the dried fruits) is dominated by thymol (2-isopropyl-5-methylphenol, 35 to 60%); furthermore, α-pinene, p-cymene, limonene and γ-terpinene have been found.

Trachyspermum ammi: Ajwain umbel
Ajwain umbel

In the essential oil distilled from aerial parts (flowers, leaves) of ajwain grown in Algeria, how­ever, iso­thymol (50%) was found to be the dominant con­stituent before p-cymene, thymol, limonene and γ-terpinene. Note, however, that the name iso­thymol is not well defined and might refer to both 2-isopropyl-4-methyl­phenol and 3-isopropyl-6-methyl­phenol (carvacrol). (Journal of Essential Oil Research, 15, 39, 2003)

From South Indian ajwain fruits, almost pure thymol has been isolated (98%), but the leaf oil was found to be composed of monoterpenoids and sesquiterpenoids: 43% cadinene, 11% longifolene, 5% thymol, 3% camphor and others. (Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 64, 250, 2002)

Origin

Eastern Mediterranean, maybe Egypt

The main cultivation areas today are Persia and India, but the spice is of little importance in global trade.

There is speculation whether a plant mentioned in the Capitulare de villis (see lovage) of Charlemagne might be ajwain; I think this is quite improbable, although I found out by experiment that ajwain can be grown in Central European climate.

Trachyspermum copticum/Apium graveolens/Carum roxburghianum: Seeds of ajwain, radhuni and celery
Three similar and often confused spices: Fruits of ajwain (upper left), radhuni (upper right) and celery (lower half). 600 dpi scan.
Etymology

English ajwain or ajwan is just the ro­man­ized spelling of the Hindi name ajvan [अजवायन, अजवान]. Most Eu­ro­pean lan­guages have similar names, although the spelling is some­times varied, e. g., in Dutch ajowan or German Adiowan. The Hindi name can be traced back to Sanskrit yavanaka [यवनक] or yavani [यवानी], which is derived from the adjective yavana [यवन] Greek. Modern Northern and Southern Indian names like Nepali javano [जवानो], Gujarati yavano [યવણો], Bengali jowan [জোয়ান], Punjabi aijavain [ਐਜਵਾਇਨ] and Tamil omam [ஓமம்] have the same source. This suggests that the spice originated from the Eastern Mediterranean and arrived in India in the course of the Greek conquest of Central Asia.

The Sanskrit term yavana for Greece belongs to the same kin as Arabic al-Yunan [اليونان], Tajiki Yunon [Юнон], Armenian Hounastan [Հունաստան], Azeri Yunanıstan and Hebrew yavan [יוון], which all derive from the name of a Greek tribe, the Ionians (classical name Iones [Ἱώες] contracted from Iaones [Ἱάονες], archaic Iavones [Ἱάϝονες]).

Another group of names for ajwain is derived from Sanskrit ajamoda [अजमोद] or ajamodika [अजमोदिका]. Examples in modern Indian languages include Kannada ajamoda [ಅಜಮೋದ] and Sinhala asamodagam [අසමෝදගම්]. However, very similar or even identical names are often used for another, related Indian spice (Trachyspermum/Carum roxburghianum), which is known in Bengal cuisine as radhuni [রাধুনি] (see also nigella). Radhuni is often confounded with celery, and the latter takes the name of the former in some Indian languages because the two plants have very similar flavour. Note also that celery and parsley are not much discriminated in India; so Hindi and Urdu ajmud [अजमूद, اجمود] may mean both parsley and celery. To make things worse, the fruits (seeds) of all these plants look very similar, giving rise to further complications.

That Indian name was also transferred to Ethiopia as azmud [አዝሙድ], which is, however, used to designate two different plants: Ajwain is termed netch azmud [ነጭ አዝሙድ] white azmud, whereas tiqur azmud [ጥቁር አዝሙድ] black azmud means nigella.

Trachyspermum ammi: Ajwain flowers close-up
Ajwain flowers

Some European and Western Asian lan­guages relate ajwain to Egypt: Turkish mısır anason Egyptian anise or Finnish koptilainen kumina Coptic caraway. Indeed, there is ajwain culti­vation in Egypt, but it is not certain whether ajwain was originally native to Egypt. Note the seem­ingly similar Slovak name egyptská čierna rasca Egyptian black caraway which, however, does not refer to ajwain but to nigella.

I cannot explain the Arabic name al-kamun al-muluki [الكمون الملوكي] cumin of the king. Yet there is an interesting parallel in the materia medica of Dioskurides: The description of a herb ammios [ἄμμιος] comes very close to ajwain, and Dioskurides remarks that the plant is also known as Ethiopian or Royal cumin. Old German pharmaceutical catalogues often name ajwain as Königskümmel king’s caraway which is probably derived from either of these two sources. Quite typically for older German herbal literature, there is confusion between cumin and caraway.

Note that the term royal cumin (or imperial cumin) may also be used for a rare Indian spice which I prefer to call black cumin.

The motivation behind the English name bishop’s weed is not clear to me. In any case, this name should best be avoided as it is also used for other plants of the Apiaceae family, e. g., Aegopodium podagraria (also known as ground elder or goutweed) and Ammi visnaga, which is more often known as toothpickweed or by its Arabic name, khella [خلة].

Selected Links

Indian Spices: Ajowan (indianetzone.com) The Epicentre: Ajowan Francesco Sirene: Spices & Herbs (Catalogue) American Spice Company: Ajowan (Bishop’s Weed) Herbie’s Spices: Ajowan World Merchants: Ajwain Gewürzkontor Condimento: Ajowan Gewürz-Bazar: Ajowan The Spice House: Ajowan INDU-Versand



Trachyspermum copticum: Ajwain plant in Nepal
Ajwain plant
Carum copticum/Trachyspermum copticum: Ajwain plant
Ajwain (flowering plant)
Ajwain is not very common in our days; its usage is almost confined to Central Asia and Northern India, particularly the North West (Punjab, Gujarat). It is also part of the Bihari and Nepali variant of panch phoran (see nigella).

The strong aroma is enhanced by toasting or frying and goes well with potatoes or fish. Legumes (lentils, beans) are, however, the most important field of application; in India, where these vegetables are popular since they provide a source of protein to the many vegetarians, they are commonly flavoured with a perfumed butter or vegetable oil (tarka also rendered tadka [तड़का]. This seemingly simple preparation is much more sophisticated than sheer heat treatment, since most aroma compounds in spices are lipophilic and dissolve much better in fat than in water. Thus, frying in butter not only enhances the fragrance because of the high temperature, but also extracts the flavour to the fat, whence it can be dispersed throughout the food efficiently. That techique is often generally known as baghar [बघार], and it forms almost the heart of North Indian cooking (for more, see onion).

A typical recipe for lentils would run as follows: First, the dried and washed lentils are cooked until tender with turmeric being the only spice added. This lentil puree is then flavoured using salt and the tadka: Cumin, chiles and/or ajwain seeds are fried until they turn brown and evolve a strong aroma; if desired, garlic or asafetida and possibly grated ginger are added and after some more frying the tadka is poured over the cooked lentils. Variants may also employ dill fruits, nigella seeds or celery fruits, although the latter are not very Indian. See chives for a Nepali variant.

Trachyspermum copticum: Flowering ajwain plant
Ajwain plant with flowers

In Southern Indian cuisine (which has a large treasure of vegetarian recipes), tadka-like preparations are not only applied to dried legumes, but also to green vegetables and boiled rice. Most popular for this purpose are black mustard seeds which are fried until they stop popping and curry leaves, which are fried for but a few seconds. Besides clarified butter, coconut fat is common.

In some parts of India, ajwain is is used for specific types of salty pastry, e. g., the Rajasthani biscuits called mathari [मठरी]. I have seen similar ajwain-flavoured pastry in Ladakh and Nepal (nimki [निम्की]).

Outside of the Indian subcontinent, ajwain is not much used. It enjoys, however, some popularity in the Arabic world and is found in berbere, a spice mixture of Ethiopia which both shows Indian and Arabic heritage (see long pepper).

Ajwain is much used as a medical plant in Ayurvedic medicine (India). Mainly, it helps against diseases of the digestive tract and fever. In India, where any amount of tap water can result in arbitrary complications, ajwain often comes to the traveller’s rescue: Just chew one spoonful of the fruits for a few minutes and wash down with hot water. In the West, thymol is used in medicines against cough and throat irritation.



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