Black Cumin

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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. It is a thin, crescent shaped spice quite similar looking to cumin. 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.


Fiona Summerfield

Summerfields Foods

207 Waimairi Road, Ilam, Christchurch

open 11am-7pm Tues – Sat

[email protected]

ph 03 357 0067



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3 thoughts on “Black Cumin

  1. I believe the true black cumin is the one grown in Egypt and Israel or at least the best version of it. It comes from the plant Nigella Sativa. it has an abundant and lengthy history of medicinal uses in those parts and has been studied in over 200 research papers during the past 40 years.

  2. Your research is worth appreciating, it is not easy to come so close to this herb as you have done it.
    Well ,being a typical Punjabi I doubt we use kaali jiri in any of our regular dishes. This is certainly used as anti viral concoction . Kaali jiri is certainly very bitter and I have seen this growing in Garwal Himalayas , it is not cultivated and is not available in the general stores as culinary herb
    We in our family have now decided to substitute common cumin with Kala Jeera or shah jeera which has been given the name as Carum carvi / Bunium persicum by the spice board of Gopeshwar. This, I have discovered , is more useful as it is not yet exploited by the ‘market’ and is grown in the high Himalayan regions of Kashmir and Kumaon mountains and has excellent aroma.
    Klonji is much different, I have seen this used only in home made pickles.

  3. Have you checked out the Indian supermarket in Durham Street. They sell Kolinji and Black cummin. They really know what;s what in there. They have just opened a new restaurant in Lichfield street called Rohits – very extensive Indian menu. Best I have seen yet. I use masses of Kolinji – add it to stirfries and in dressings. Has a definite onion tinge about it but is a wonderful health tonic!!!