Ajwain, that beautiful musty herb and spice, smelling of camphor, is well known in the East and the West. In India, for example, both the leaves and seeds are used. There are culinary uses to both, but also very common medicinal uses of leaves and seeds. It is related to cumin, parsley and dill. With a fragrance reminiscent of cumin, but more intense and assertive, it tastes of thyme but stronger and less subtle, with licquorice overtones.
Ajwain, also called Doddapatre, is often confused with lovage, parsley seed and oregano. Other names for ajwain in India include karpooravalli, Indian Borage, India Coleus, Pan-Ova, and Omavalli. The seed can be called ajowan or ajwain,bishop’s weed, ajowan caraway, carom seeds, or thymol seeds.
This 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. Vegetables 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 then 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.
Check out our Fenugreek and Ajwain Chinese-Style Pancakes.
Ajwain in India
While in India it is very common, the available descriptions of ajwain are 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.
Ajwain as a plant 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 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.
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 gas and discomfort in the stomach. It is also helpful for the functioning of the respiratory system and the kidneys.
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 flavor. 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.
Feel free to browse our Spices series.