Indian Essentials: Cumin Seeds – Brown and Black (Shar Jeera)

Cumin is a small shrubbery herb, the seeds of which have a pungent scent, and are used as a flavouring and as a condiment. It is said that cumin’s therapeutic properties are as a stomachic, bitter tonic, carminative, stimulant and astringent. It is prevalent in Indian cooking, giving character to most vegetable and lentils dishes, and chutneys. The seeds are aromatic and pungent. It is a well known digestive stimulant, and helpd to dissipate gas from lentil dishes.

The plant is actually a member of the parsley family, native to the Mediterranean. Cumin is an ancient favourite of Egyptian origin, extensively used throughout the region, and by people living close to the Mediterranean coastline. Now it is also an essential Indian ingredient and many people associate it with India rather than the Mediterranean now. They are also used in India, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as well as Mediterranean countries.

Cumin seeds look a little like caraway seeds, but are slightly larger, plumper and lighter in colour.Β  They are also like fennel seeds but smaller and darker. They have a strong aroma with a bitter-sweet, assertively warm earthy flavour with a slight peppermint tinge. They have a cooling affect on the body despite their pungency. They are said to pacify vata and kapha and are a gentle stimulant of pitta.

They are used both whole and ground. When whole, in India, they are often dry roasted or flash cooked in oil (tadka) to intensify their flavour and to make them slightly nutty. When ground, they are used in rice and vegetable dishes. Roasted and ground, they are sprinkled over many snack foods, relishes and yoghurt dishes.

Cumin Seeds

Black Cumin Seeds | Shar Jeera | Kala Jeera

Black Cumin is a rarer and more expensive form of cumin, with sweeter, smaller, finer and more delicate seeds. The colour ranges from dark brown to black and it is often confused with nigella seed.

The dark brown, 3 mm long seeds are used primarily in India, Kashmir, Iran and Pakistan, and have an earthy, heavy aroma and a nutty taste after cooking. Black cumin originates in Northern India and Central Asia, and is not much known outside Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan and the western part of Northern India (Kashmir, Punjab).

These are used in Garam Masala where the mild pungency is perfect. The seeds can be dry roasted and sprinkled over rice pilafs.

Feel free to browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series. You might also like our Spice information here. Or you might like to browse our Indian Essentials series here.

explore more information