With a satisfying crunch and flavor reminiscent of toasted onion and oregano, Nigella seeds are a unique addition to curries, stir-fries, salads, baked goods, and more.
Native to eastern Europe and western Asia, Nigella seeds have been used for thousands of years as a flavor element, a preservative, and a curative. It’s said that nigella seeds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. They received a mention in the Bible’s Old Testament, as well as praise from the Prophet Muhammad for their purported healing powers.
Nigella seeds come from the plant Nigella sativa, a flowering annual plant in the Ranunculaceae family. Their shape has an interesting appeal, edgier than sesame, but they can be used in many of the same ways. They are called by many names: onion seeds, black cumin, charnushka, kalonji, black caraway, fennel flower, and more.
These small black seeds are beloved for their toasted onion flavor, not unlike the onion flakes on an ‘everything’ bagel. Many people also detect a pleasant nuttiness, or notes of oregano.
Nigella seeds are used across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in a variety of ways. You might find them added to dough and baked goods, such as Indian naan or a range of North African white breads. It’s also common to see them used as a condiment or garnish for everything from salads and stir-fries to flatbreads and curries.
Panch phoran, which means “five spice” in Bengali, is a seed blend popular in Bangladesh and Northern India that combines equal parts nigella, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and mustard seeds. As an important part of the regional cuisine, the blend is used frequently on dishes like chicken or fish curry, lentils, and cooked potatoes. The typical first step to cooking with panch phoran is to cook it in oil or ghee to allow the spice to bloom, which releases its aromatic properties.
Similarly, when garnishing foods with nigella seeds, you’ll want to toast them in a dry skillet first to develop their flavor. Their crunch can provide a satisfying textural contrast for foods like baked sweet potatoes, and their savory flavor can counter the sweetness of squash or root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. A sprinkle of nigella seeds, with their faint onion-y flavor, benefits dishes showcasing complementary flavors, such as tomatoes or eggs.
In the U.S., nigella seeds can be easily found online, and some specialty stores may carry them. Outside the U.S., larger supermarkets may sell nigella seeds. In some shops, they might be found under their Hindi name, kalonji.
Ready to get started? Try sprinkling nigella seeds over curried chicken with red lentils or butternut squash curry.