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Nigella Seeds: Is the Newest Superfood Spice Really a Cure-All?

February 8, 2014

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Though you may not have heard of nigella seeds, if you’ve ever had naan, chances are you’ve tried them. It can be hard to know, though, since nigella seeds go by a dizzying number of names—black seed, sanouj, Kalonji, black cumin, black onion seed, roman coriander, black caraway— almost every country and region calls it something different. Nigella seeds derive from a flowering plant, nigella stavia, grown all over the Mediterranean. Nigella is actually the Italian terminology, but in Italy you’ll also hear it referred to as grano nero, which literally means black grain. Umm, can a seed be under the witness protection program?  

Whatever you choose to call them, there’s no hiding the fact that nigella seeds have all the makings of a hot new superfood. They’re cancer-protective, antibacterial, digestion-friendly, inflammatory-reducing, and immunity-boosting. Even better, these benefits take effect if you add just a teaspoon or dash. The power of these tiny black seeds comes from the fact that they contain 15 amino acids, essential fatty acids like linoleic acid, vitamins A and C, and valuable minerals such as calcium, protein, potassium, and iron. Nigella seeds also contain a compound called thymoquinone, which is currently being studied for its ability to reduce allergic reactions to certain foods. Plus, it’s a powerful antioxidant that may help cleanse your body and detox your liver.

Religious biblical texts cite nigella seeds as a natural cure-all,  with Ancient Egyptians using them medicinally to treat skin and hair conditions, respiratory problems, and headaches. In fact, they were prized enough that “black seed” oil was stowed away in tombs of kings. Ancient Greeks used nigella seeds as a natural inhaler to relieve congestion by placing the seeds in linen, rubbing the cloth to slightly warm them, and then breathing in the antihistamine-acting vapors.

Both the seed and black seed oil are still enjoyed today, especially for their exotic taste— a slightly bitter, nutty, and peppery flavor. They’re often found in Indian, Moroccan, and Middle Eastern cooking, in dishes like dal, curries, and Turkish borek.  Nigella seeds are also one of the five whole spices used in Eastern India and Bangaldesh in an herb mix called panch phoron or panch puran.  The tiny black spice granules add a complex, intriguing element to everything from salads to spicy vegetable medleys.  Sprinkle on the healing benefits by trying one of these recipes:  

In this simple, delicious Green Mango Salad, nigella seeds are splashed onto slices of unripe mango, sweet onion, and Thai basil leaves. It’s both refreshing and nourishing (and raw and vegan)!

Several health-boosting seeds pair up in this Fennel and Nigella Seed Savory Flat Bread. It has a soft, cake-like texture, and is perfect for panini sandwiches or sliced up for dipping into hummus or the dip of your choice.

Warm spoonfuls of hearty, turmeric- and seed-covered veggies make Stir-fried Cauliflower and Potato with Nigella Seeds the ultimate comfort food. This spicy dish is kicked up with green chili, so you may want to pair it with whole-wheat tortillas or brown rice to help you bear the heat.

Who doesn’t love a superfood-filled soup? This Moroccan-inspired Carrot, Sweet Potato, and Red Pepper Soup is garnished with nigella seeds and topped off with hot harissa paste, cilantro, and a dollop of creamy Greek yogurt. It’s a winning flavor combination that will have you coming back for seconds and excited about the next day’s leftovers.

Have you ever cooked with nigella seeds? What other ways can you think of to use them?