What is the difference between cumin, caraway, black cumin and nigella?
We get this question a lot: What is the difference between cumin seeds and caraway seeds? They look almost the same! … and then they notice our “black cumin” which further adds to the confusion. Here’s a look at all of them side by side so you can visualise the similarities and difference, and then we’ll delve deeper:
Cumin seeds are a first cousin of carrot and parsley, and a visual twin of the caraway seed. They are also often confused with black cumin, but let us first have a closer look at the mighty cumin seed.
Originally cultivated in the Mediterranean and in Iran, Cumin has been well known since ancient times. It was used by the Egyptians as a preservative for the mummification process, and cumin seeds are even mentioned in the Bible! It was also used by the Romans as a spice and as a medicinal plant… and of course by Indians for cooking and home-remedies for thousands of years.
Used like a powder or a whole seed it adds an earthly and warm feeling to the taste. Latin Americans and Arabs regulary use cumin in their cuisine. In India cumin is used as a traditional ingredient for many recipes such as kormas, masalas, and many spice blends including curry and garam masala. Because of its natural presevative properties, cumin is oftenly added in sausages and preserved meat. In Europe the cumin seed is very popular as well, commonly added to savoury pastries and used for the making of pickles.
Medical uses of cumin
In Sanskrit, cumin means “that which helps digestion”. Indeed the main health benefits are related to the digestive system. It stimulates the appetite, as well as the stomach, biliary and pancreatic secretion. At the same time cumin soothes spasms and removes gases from the intestines. Cumin is superior in comforting carminative qualities to fennel or caraway. Nowadays for its medicinal properties cumin is used mainly in veterinary practice as a carminative.
In traditional Indian medicine a drink is made by boiling cumin seeds in water. It is believed to help prevent heart diseases, swelling, vomitting, poor digestion and chronic fever.
The main volatile component in cumin is called cuminaldehyde. It is this component that gives the seeds their unique taste. Cuminaldehyde is an important phytochemical and has many health benefits. Alcohol and water extracts of cumin are reported to possess many pharmaceutical properties (it is a potent antioxidant). According to a study conducted in 2012, cuminaldehyde also directly helps to lower chances of developing Parkinson’s.
Cumin, caraway and black cumin
Due to its appearance cumin may be confused with the caraway seed, but despite their similar appearance the taste is very different. The caraway seed is darker in colour, smoother and a bit curved. Caraway seeds taste more bitter, and the aroma can be described as more mint / anise-like.
One seed which is very different in taste and in appearance but close by name is the black cumin. Despite their names, the two are not related and have very little in common. It is easy to distinguish them by their appearance. This seed is also more commonly known as Nigella, short for Nigella Sativa, it’s botanical name. Nigella seeds are also renowned in history for their medicinal benefits, some of which are finally begin to be researched scientifically for factual merit. One such study found a causal link between consumption of nigella seeds linked to treating hypercholesterolemia, although the study later added that more research was needed for conclusive evidence.
Some languages do not distinguish clearly between the two. In some Slavic languages caraway is called simply “cumin”, whereas cumin is called Roman cumin. We’ve noticed from the trade too, that caraway is often used to dilute cumin seeds depending on market rates. It just looks like a darker cumin seed afterall! When mixed in small quantities with cumin, the taste of caraway is also masked to some extent. Other studies also found anti-cancer properties in the seed.
The final “variety” that also often gets lumped in is a different variety of black cumin – known as “kalajira” (literally black cumin) in India. This looks much similar to cumin seeds, but again much darker. The taste is also world’s apart: kalajira is much more bitter, harsher, and only for cooking very specific dishes in western and northern Indian cuisine… none of which you would find on a normal restaurant menu.