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.
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