There are culinary uses to both leaf and seed of the Ajwain or Carom plant, and also very common medicinal uses of leaves and seeds. It is related to cumin, parsley and dill, and is often confused with lovage, parsley seed and oregano. With a fragrance reminiscent of cumin, but more intense and assertive, it tastes of thyme but stronger and less subtle, with liquorice overtones. They are also similar in appearance to cumin but are slightly smaller in size. The taste is bitter and pungent and are heating in nature, unlike cumin which is cooling. The seed can be called Ajowan, Ajawayan, Ajwain, Bishop’s Weed, Carom Seeds, or Thymol Seeds. It is often incorrectly called Caraway.
The Carom plant originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, probably Egypt, and is mainly grown today in Indian and Persia. Its use is generally confined to Central Asia and Northern India (e.g. in some versions of the Panch Phoran spice mixture from Bengal). It also appears in the Ethiopian Berebere spice mixture (which shows both Indian and Arabian heritage!).
The aroma of the seeds is enhanced by roasting and Ajwain goes well with potatoes, lentils and beans and leafy vegetables. Simple vegetable dishes can be flavoured with a perfumed butter containing Ajwain, made by frying the seeds in melted butter.
The spice is mostly sold in seed form rather than powder since it is rarely if ever, used as a powder. Because of its dominant flavour, it is used in small quantities and almost always used cooked as it mellows a little with cooking.
Ajwain Seed in India
While in India it is very common, the descriptions of Ajwain are generally about the use of the seeds in the West. This is unfortunate that the Indian and Ayurvedic use is overlooked as the knowledge of it adds a lot to the flexibility of use in all cuisines.
According to Ayurveda, the seed is a powerful cleanser. It is helpful for stimulating the appetite and enhancing digestion. It is recommended to help alleviate indigestion, colic, gas and discomfort in the stomach almost instantly. It is also helpful for the functioning of the respiratory system and the kidneys. Because of its potent nature, it is used in small amounts.
Ajwain seed is commonly added to deep-fried foods, such as fritters, in Indian cooking, to help ease of digestion. It is frequently used in vegetable and lentil dishes (for its distinctive taste) and pickles (for its preservative qualities). A pinch added to buttermilk or digestive lassi can promote digestion if taken after lunch. Add a pinch to rice as it is cooking, for aroma and flavour. The seeds are used to flavour breads, lentils and pulses in Northern India. Ajwain seeds can also be combined with other spices such as turmeric, paprika, cumin, black pepper, fennel and coriander. It is also used in herbal teas.
Ajwain Leaf (Doddapatre)
Ajwain Leaf is a different herb, a beautiful musty herb and spice smelling of camphor that is well known in the East and the West. Ajwain Leaf, also called Doddapatre and Karpooravalli in India, is a completely different plant to Ajwain/Carom. Other names for ajwain leaf include karpooravalli (Tamil), Indian Borage, Indian Coleus, Cuban Oregano, Spanish Thyme, Mexican Mint, Mexican Thyme, False Oregano, Pathar choor (in Hindi), Navara (in Malayalam), Panikoora (Kerala), Pan-Ova, and Omavalli.
Ajwain Leaf is an important medicinal herb as well. Plants are commonly grown in household gardens and the leaves are nibbled on to protect against coughs, colds and related illnesses.
The leaves have many traditional medicinal uses, especially for the treatment of coughs, sore throats and nasal congestion, but also for a range of other problems such as infections, rheumatism, headaches and flatulence. The herb is also used as a substitute for oregano in the food trade and food labelled “oregano-flavoured” may well contain this herb. The leaves can be used in salads, rasams, bhajji, infusions and other dishes.