Nigella? Nigel's twin sister? Nigella Lawson? NO!!! Read on.....
Nigella seeds are a small and ancient oblong seed believed to be native to the Mediterranean. Through the whims of nature and steady commercial trade they have spread throughout North Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Asia. Nigella seeds are the seeds of Nigella Sativa, an annual flowering plant of the Ranunculacae family.
Nigella seeds also have multiple names: Black Cumin, Black Sesame and Charnushka. The plant that produces nigella seeds is somewhat sensitive to both climate and soil conditions. It grows best in warm to temperate climates. Production thus is geographically limited to the Middle East, India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran.
Nigella seeds have a slightly bitter taste. Some people have told me that they remind them of the taste of pepper, or the bits of onion from an everything bagel, hmmmm. When ground or chewed they release and oregano-like scent.
Over the centuries the uses of nigella seeds have been numerous and diverse. The earliest recorded use of nigella seeds dates to the Assyrians who used the seeds to cure stomach problems. Nigella seeds were also used in biblical times to spice breads and cakes. This use is still prevalent today in Turkey, the Middle East and India, where the seeds are used to sprinkle on savory pastries such as pogaca, fatayer, or naan bread respectively.
In antiquity, physicians spoke of the medicinal virtues of nigella seeds, such as their ability to cure fevers, toothaches, headaches and even boost the immune system. Nigella seeds, were used as a dietary supplement in Ancient Rome, in much the same way we use vitamins today.
In Ancient Egyptian society, the well to do used nigella seed oil to soften the skin, and as a digestive aid also. This oil was so important to the Egyptians that both the seeds and the oil have been found in King Tut's tomb. Fast forward about 6,000 years and there are some successful and reputable studies being conducted today seeking to validate the health benefits of including nigella seeds in your diet.
Here are a few dishes I like to sprinkle with nigella seeds to add a bit color and interesting flavor notes. Lebanese lamb fatayer is a meat filled dough that is baked in a similar way to a pizza and brushed with an egg wash. Thai mango sticky rice is a sweet rice dessert drizzled with a syrup and layered with mango. Lebanese cheese fatayer is filled with a mixture of feta, yogurt, mozzarella and parsley. Turkish pide is a cheesy baked bread that is so tasty when sprinkled with a peppery nigella seeds.
I hope I have provided you with a bit of valuable and perhaps interesting information regarding a somewhat obscure ingredient (at least in American cooking).