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Black cumin is the spice that gives a distinctive flavor to korma and biryani dishes common to the cuisines of northern Indian, northern Pakistan, and Kashmir. Only recently have its health benefits become known.

If you have been hearing about the health benefits of black cumin and you are not quite sure what black cumin is, you are not alone. Black cumin is the spice used to flavor traditional korma (yogurt, cream, and nut) and biryani (spiced rice) dishes that are popular in northern Pakistan, northern India, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. 

Not to Be Confused with Caraway

More specifically, black cumin is the seed of the plant Bunium persicum, which has an appearance similar to caraway, with which it is frequently confused. Only 1-2 mm (about 1/8 of an inch), black cumin has a flattened, elliptical shape, reminiscent of an American football.

Each black cumin seed has deep furrows in its surface. Caraway also has an elliptical shape, but it is pale green, each seed marked by five ridges. Black cumin is used in Pakistani, Kashmiri, and northern Indian cuisine, while caraway is more common in Bengali Indian food.

Black cumin is roasted with other spices to give the blend a smokey, earthy flavor to balance the heat and pungency of the other ingredients in the korma or biryani spice blend.

Because the herb is hard to grow and each tiny seed has to be harvested by hand, it is relatively expensive even today. In pre-modern times, black cumin was so valuable it was known as shahi zera, or royal cumin. Today this spice is most commonly known as kala jira or kashmiri jira (kashmiri zireh in Urdu), not to be confused with the term kalo jira which is used to describe caraway seed in Bengal.

Black cumin is used more in Moghul or Muslim cuisine, which has more meat dishes. In these dishes black cumin is used for aroma, but not knock-you-down pungent odors that sometimes are found in dishes made outside of northern India.

Caraway is used more in vegetable dishes that are more closely associated with Hindu diets. Caraway is also used to flavor cabbage and cheese dishes in many parts of Europe. Caraway is a well-known carminative, or stomach remedy. Black cumin, however, has much more extensive healing potential.

What Are the Important Plant Chemicals in Black Cumin?

Over 500 studies published in the mainstream scientific literature document proven and likely health benefits of black cumin. For many years, research into the health applications of black cumin focused on its essential oils, which are similar to the essential oils in cloves and cardamom. Recent research, however, has found that many of the most striking healing properties of black cumin are derived from its primary antioxidant, thymoquinone.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Harzallah HJ, Grayaa R, Kharoubi W, Maaloul A, Hammami M, Mahjoub T. Thymoquinone, the Nigella sativa bioactive compound, prevents circulatory oxidative stress caused by 1,2-dimethylhydrazine in erythrocyte during colon postinitiation carcinogenesis. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2012. 012:854065. doi: 10.1155/2012/854065. Epub 2012 Apr 18. PMID: 22570743 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
  • Mat MC, Mohamed AS, Hamid SS. Primary human monocyte differentiation regulated by Nigella sativa pressed oil. Lipids Health Dis. 2011 Nov 21.10:216. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-10-216.PMID: 22104447 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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  • Photo courtesy of Dharmadhyaksha: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Dharmadhyaksha