Getting to Know Ajwain is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Trachyspermum ammi
It's been a while since I've profiled an unusual spice and this month's offering might certainly be unfamiliar, though not to cooks with a background in Indian and Middle-Eastern cooking.
Ajwain seeds, also known as carom seeds or bishop's weed, is a spice that's been around for a long time. The seeds were pressed into oil, and were originally used in the herbal medicine practice, Ayurveda, in India, as a remedy for a lot of household illnesses, as well as for post-partum nursing mothers. It was then co-opted into everyday cooking in order to enhance the nutritional and digestive benefits of dishes.
Flavour Profile of Ajwain
While I've been referring to ajwain seeds, this spice is actually the dried fruit of the ajwain plant and not the seeds. The ajwain plant is a short, feathery bush that's usually grown in sandy, well drained soil, and therefore suitable for cultivation in drought conditions. The dried fruit is ridged and a dark green/khaki colour, which looks very similar to cumin (which is why it's also referred to, sometimes, as Ethiopian cumin). Originally grown in West Asia, cultivation soon spread across the continent, mainly to India, and it's now cultivated in most of the sub-continent, as well as parts of the Middle-East (Iran) and East Africa.
Raw ajwain fruits have a very strong thyme-like flavour, since they have a greater concentration of thymol. When dried, the flavour is milder, but still has a hot kick that can leave your tongue numb. Since ajwain is part of the spice family that also boasts of cumin, caraway, fennel and dill, it's very easily mistaken in appearance to one of these spices; however, the flavour is very different and unusual. It's been variously described as fruity, "spicy," hot and with a sweet, pleasant aftertaste.
Culinary Uses of Ajwain
Ajwain is a common spice in the Indian pantry, and is consumed both raw and cooked. It has a distinctive smoky taste when cooked and is used mainly to flavour vegetarian dishes, particularly dishes from the west coast state of Gujarat. Ajwain is a very powerful spice, and can easily take over a dish with its strong, oily aroma, which is why it needs to be used with caution, added a little at a time, until the flavours are just balanced.
The spice is available at most Asian and Indian grocery stores, as well as specialty spice stores. Find seeds that look plump, fresh and a dark grayish green colour. They should have a strong smell, and not look overly dehydrated. Ajwain seeds can be easily mistaken for other spices, so make sure you take a good whiff of them before buying. It's rare to find ground ajwain anywhere, so if your recipe requires some, dry roast the required amount, until aromatic (about 30 seconds) and use a spice blender to grind it down to a fine powder. Ajwain is stored similar to other spices, ideally in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place.
In Indian cooking, ajwain is mainly used to flavour pastries and breads like samosa shells, parathas (flaky flatbreads) and rotis. It's also used as a seasoning for potato curries and as a tempering for dals and pakoras. The spice is also chewed whole with fennel and small sugar cubes after a heavy meal as a digestive aid and a mouth freshener.
Non-Culinary Uses of Ajwain
As I mentioned earlier, ajwain has been used since ancient times for its health properties, thanks to the high concentration of thymol. In Ayurveda, ajwain seeds are crushed and used as parts of pills as remedies for everything from heartburn and digestive problems to kidney and lung problems. Ground ajwain is mixed into a paste to make poultices for skin issues like acne and for arthritis. The seeds are also steeped in milk or other liquids and used as a breast milk enhancer for nursing mothers. It's also used as an aphrodisiac.
Ajwain is also used in the herbal cosmetic industry, particularly in toothpastes, acne medications and perfumes. It's also used as a fungicide.
And finally, did you know that oil extracted from ajwain was used as an antiseptic in early forms of surgery?
Looking for more spices and herbs to jazz up your kitchen creations? Check out these Spice Box profiles:
What have you made with ajwain lately? Let us know in the comments!