Black Cumin - Seeds of Blessing
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Black Cumin (negilla sativa) or, as it is sometimes called, Black Caraway, known in the Arab lands as Habbat al-Baraka (the Seed of Blessing) due to its many attributed powerful healing qualities, is still a relatively unknown herb/spice in the Western world. In the eastern lands from the Mediterranean on the west to Indonesia on the east, it has been used for centuries by chefs and herbalists for enhancing food and for treating a whole series of ailments. This ‘Seed of Blessing’, also known simply in Arabic as Habbat al-Sawda (the Black Seed) has been used as a healing agent throughout the Middle East since ancient times.
Black Cumin has been with the people of the Middle East since the dawn of history. The ancient Egyptians employed Black Cumin as a digestive aid, and for colds, headaches, and infections. The oil of this seed was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb for his use in the afterlife and there is evidence that Cleopatra favored its healing and beauty giving properties. However, the first written reference to Black Cumin is believed to be the cumin mentioned in the ‘Book of Isaiah’ in the Old Testament.
Ayurvedic medicine of India appreciated its many healthful qualities and the Greeks used it to treat headaches, intestinal disorders, nasal congestion, and toothaches. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that ‘Black Cumin heals every disease except death’. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the author of the famous Canon of Medicine, one of the most renowned books in the history of medicine, recommended Black Cumin for stimulating metabolism and for recovery from dispiritedness and lethargy.
Negilla Sativa has no relation to the common kitchen herb/spice, cumin. It is today cultivated in North Africa, Asia, and Southeast Europe – Egypt producing the best kind. It belongs to the botanical family Ranunculaceae, the plant grows up to two feet tall and produces finely divided foliage and pale bluish purple or milky white flowers. When its fruit capsule, which consists of many white trigonal seeds, matures, it opens up and the seeds contained within are exposed to the air, becoming black in color. The black seeds, no more than 3mm in length, have an odor like anise.
Black Cumin seeds, appearing like small sesame seeds, contain over a hundred components such as both fixed and volatile oils, alkaloids, carbohydrates, crude fibres, protein, saponin, a good number of various types of acids, as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc, as well as vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin B2, and vitamin C. The creme de la crème of optimum health products, it is a legendary medicinal herb of ancient usage.
The medieval doctors ascribed to Black Cumin many biological activities, including anti-tumor action and human T-cell production which aids in balancing and stabilizing the immune system. From the 13th century, the seeds have been employed by herbalists, in many countries of the world, to treat asthma, gastrointestinal ailments, kidney and liver disorders, and to help in the circulation of the blood.
Modern research has established that Black Cumin increases the immune system by 64% and contains numerous other healthful components such as enzymes. In addition, results from university laboratories have proven that Black Cumin oil is very successful in tumor therapy. It inhibits tumor growth, increases the flow of breast milk, and lowers blood sugar level. As well, the oil increases bone marrow cells by 50% and helps in the healing of acute chronic illness. In addition, the seeds are now gaining worldwide recognition as a powerful anti-cancer cell inhibitor
The oil from the seeds is excellent for use in external healing for such ailments as boils, dry skin, eczema, parasitic infestation, and sore joints. In Germany, doctors in Munich have established that in a good number of cases, Black Cumin has benefited patients suffering from allergic conditions.
Black Cumin seed is even more effective when combined with other herbs like garlic. The combination is, for the body’s defense system, effective in fighting the natural killer cells. When combined with Echinacea, Black Cumin greatly strengthens the immune system, especially against colds and flu. As well, ginger or Royal Jelly mixed with Black Cumin enhances the sexual function and improves the sperm count.
Black Seed oil is more concentrated than the seeds. However, caution should be taken when buying black seed oil due to the fact that many oil products are imported and may be adulterated. Always buy the oil that is labeled as 100%, cold-pressed, solvent free, and packed and sealed by machine. When cold-pressed, the oil retains all the compounds of the seeds.
On the other hand, even if all these attributes are taken into account, Black Cumin is only a natural food supplement. It is not a quick fix and must be taken for a period of four to six months for the positive effects to show. One cannot truly say that they cure any disease, but the seeds can help on the way to recovery of a patient. There are so many healing qualities attributed to these ‘Blessed Seeds’ that even if only a few of these are true, the seeds can be truly called “Blessed’.
Black Cumin Seeds are also a delicious part of the culinary world. The seeds can be mixed with food or crushed and combined with sweetening agents such as honey. Darker and sweeter than ordinary cumin, they are much used in Iranian and Indian cooking, especially in the northern Indian and Moghul dishes. In both countries, Nigella seeds, to bring out their nutty flavor, are fried or deep-roasted before being mixed into vegetable dishes. In the Indian sub-continent, where they are known as Kala Jeera (Black Cumin) or shahi jeera (royal cumin), they are employed in many curries and tandoori dishes.
In Ethiopia, they are utilized as a flavoring for alcoholic drinks and in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Lebanon, the seeds are used as an ingredient in sweet bread and cakes. The seeds are also utilized as a substitute for pepper and used for flavoring a type of cheese called Halloumi. In these lands and beyond, these ‘Blessed Seeds’ add an exotic and healthy touch to all type of dishes.
These few dishes will give one an idea of foods that are enhanced by Black Cumin:
Spicy Bread and Potatoes
This is a mild version of Papar-er Tarkari – an Indian dish.
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons Black Cumin seeds
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups hot water
2 toasted medium pita bread loaves, toasted and broken into pieces
Heat oil in a frying pan, then add Black Cumin seeds and stir-fry over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add potatoes, then stir in turmeric and chili powder and stir-fry for a further 5 minutes.
Stir in salt and water and bring to boil then cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir in bread, then cook for a few minutes.
Black Cumin Soup
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons Black Cumin seeds
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 medium potatoes, finely chopped
6 cups of water
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 cup chopped parsley
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 cups yogurt
1 cup finely chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
Heat oil in a saucepan, then add Black Cumin seeds and
stir-fry over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add onions, then sauté over medium heat for 8 minutes. Add garlic, then stir-fry for further 2 minutes. Add potatoes and water, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes. Place saucepan contents in a food processor, then process into a smooth paste.
Return to saucepan, then stir in vinegar, parsley, salt and pepper, and heat. Remove from fire then stir in yogurt and coriander leaves and serve.
Okra in Coconut Milk
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 package frozen okra (10 oz), thawed then sautéed in oil until skin begins to brown
1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon Black Cumin seeds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Place coconut milk in a saucepan and bring to boil, stirring constantly, then add fried okra, hot pepper, garlic, mustard seeds, and salt then bring to boil. Bring to boil again then cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan, then add Black Cumin seeds and stir-fry until seeds begin to crackle.
Place saucepan contents in a serving bowl, then stir in lemon juice. Spread Black Cumin seeds over top and serve hot or cold.
Eggplants With Yogurt
1 eggplant, about 1 pound, peeled, cut in half then cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons Black Cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1 cup plain yogurt
1/8 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
Rub eggplant slices with salt and turmeric powder then allow to stand for 1 to 2 hours.
Heat oil in a frying pan, then fries eggplant slices over medium heat until lightly brown on both sides, turning over once and adding more oil if necessary. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside on paper towel to drain off excess oil.
In the same oil fry onion on medium heat for10 minutes, adding more oil if necessary. Remove onion with a slotted spoon, then set aside.
Combine Black Cumin and yogurt then set aside.
On a serving platter, arrange the eggplant and onions in alternating layers. Evenly spread yogurt mix and Black Cumin mixture on top, then garnish with coriander and chili powder. Chill in the refrigerator then serve.
Serves 4 to 6
6 tablespoons butter
2-pounds leg of lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon Black Cumin seeds
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup grape juice
1 1/2 cups water
Melt butter in a saucepan then sauté lamb over medium heat until it begins to brown. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Add Black Cumin seeds to butter, then stir-fry until seeds begin to crackle. Add onions, then stir-fry over medium/low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients, including the lamb, then bring to boil and cover. Simmer over medium/low heat for about 30 minutes or until the meat is well cooked.
Black Cumin Flavoured Rice with Vermicelli
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon Black Cumin seeds
1 cup thin vermicelli, broken into small pieces
1 cup rice, rinsed
2 1/4 cups boiling water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a frying pan, melt butter then stir-fry Black Cumin seeds until they start to crackle. Quickly, stir in vermicelli and rice, then stir-fry over medium heat for 1 minute. Stir in remaining ingredients then bring to boil. Cover then cook over medium/low heat for 20 minutes. Stir, then re-cover and turn off heat. Allow cooking in own steam for 30 minutes. Serve as a side dish with any type of stew.