What is Black Cumin?

Black cumin, a smaller variety of cumin with a different flavor, is a popular spice in North Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian foods. Also referred to as Kashmiri cumin in India, it was a popular ingredient in Muglai cooking and was given the name shahi jeera, meaning “imperial cumin,” by the Moguls. The Moguls, who were Muslims, ruled North India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Muglai cooking combined Iranian and Middle Eastern ingredients with local preparation methods and influenced much of North Indian cuisine.

Origin and Varieties

Black cumin has its origins in North India, Iran, and Egypt, and is grown in Kashmir, Iran, and Pakistan.

Spice Description

Black cumin is dark brown, very thin, and much smaller fruit than regular cumin, about 3 mm long. Black cumin seeds are smaller, thinner, and darker, almost black. They taste sweeter than cumin with intense lemony, caraway-like notes. When cumin is toasted in oil or dry roasted, it becomes nutty, with a richer and mellower flavor.

Chemical Components

Black cumin has 0.5% to 1.6% essential oil, mainly carvone (45% to 60%), limonene and ρ-cymene. Oleoresin cumin is brownish to yellowish green in color; 5 lb. are equivalent to 100 lb. of freshly ground spice. Cumin contains calcium, vitamin A, potassium, sodium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Cooking with Black Cumin

Black cumin is popular in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines, such as Yemeni zhoug and Saudi Arabian baharat. It is used in tagines (meat stews) of North Africa and in lamb roasts, couscous, sausages, vegetables, and ground meat dishes (kibbeh) of the Middle East. Iranians use black cumin to enhance many meat and lamb dishes.

In India, black cumin is used whole and roasted and is added to yogurts, chutneys, curries, biryanis, kormas, kebabs, garam masalas, lassis (yogurt drinks), and the breads of North India and Pakistan. It is an essential flavoring of meats and rices in Kashmiri cuisine, which is based on rich creamy sauces.

Other Names

ashmiri cumin, black caraway, and Roman nutmeg flower. It is also called kamun aswad (Arabic), cumin noir (French), schwarzer kreuzkummel (German), kala/shahi jeera (Hindi), comino nero (Italian), buraku kumin (Japanese), karun jeeragum (Malayalam, Tamil), svartkarve (Norwegian), kaluduru (Singhalese), comino negro (Spanish), svartkummin (Swedish), and kalajeera (Urdu).

Scientific Name

Cuminum nigrum
Family: Umbelliferae (carrot family)

Photo by: Sanjay Acharya / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)