Monday, July 13, 2015

Cumin and similar spices

Cumin or Jeera is a very important ingredient in Indian cooking. There are various other spices which are named as variants of jeera like shahi jeera, kala jeera etc, and i realised there is a lot of confusion around them. The objective of this post is to document the many similar spices, so that the confusions are cleared.


Indian names - Jeera,  Safed Jeera, Zeera, Jeerakam, Jeerige

Botanical name Cuminum cyminum

A very primary spice used in tempering Indian dishes. When soaked in water, makes a cooling drink. Combined with other spices to make "Jal Jeera".

Black Cumin/ Black Caraway

Indian names - Shahi Jeera/ Shaha Jeera, Kashmiri Jira, Vilayeti Jeera, Kala Jeera

Botanical name - Bunium Persicum

Has an anise note to it. Much costlier than jeera. Thinner and fragrant seeds. Used in aristocratic dishes. This is also called Kala Jeera.


Indian names - Sajeera, Shima Jirakam, Sajirakam

Botanical name - Carum carvi

This gets mistaken for Shaha Jeera/Black Cumin very commonly by Indian chefs.


Indian namesKalonji, Mangralia, Mogrell, Kalo Jeera, Karun Jeerakam

Botanical name - Nigella sativa

Used commonly in Bengali cooking and called Kalo Jeera in those parts. This has confused a lot of people. There is another variant which is also called Kali Jeeri, which is too bitter to be used in cooking. 

Some people also confuse these with onion seeds. The rule is - onion seeds are round and flat, while nigella seeds are oval and pointed.


Indian names - Kali Jeeri, Bakchi, Vakuchi, Katuchirakam, Katu Jiragay

Botanical name - Vernonia anthelmintica

There are many similar plants in the iron-weed family, with similar properties. It is a bitter medicine and a very potent antiseptic. I wonder how many people mistook this either for nigella or for caraway by the name, and ended up spoiling their food preparations.

Carom/Bishop's weed

Indian names - Ajwain, Owa, Omam, Ayamodakam

Botanical name - Trachyspermum ammi

This has an oregano note to it. People generally mistake this for Cuban Oregano (Sambarpalli) in India.

The Bengali's exclusively use a spice called Radhuni, which happens to be a close cousin of this seed. It is called Ajmoda in Hindi and Wild Celery in English.


Indian names - Saunf, Variali, Perum Jeerakam

Botanical name - Foeniculum vulgare

This has a sweet note to it as it is from the carrot family. Used as a mouth freshener. The oil of this plant, along with dill oil, is a major component of "Gripe Water" given to babies.


Indian names - Patli Saunf, Vilayeti Saunf, Sop, Shombu

Botanical name - Pimpinella anisum

More expensive than fennel. Used as a spice, and rarely as a mouth freshener. The saunf served in restaurants as mouth fresheners is fennel, and generally not aniseed.


Indian names - Sowa, Sabasige, Sathakupi Sompa, Shepu

Botanical name - Anethum graveolens

The greens of this plant get mistaken for fennel, as the leaf structure is similar. It is used extensively in European cooking and goes well with fish. In India, a lot of people are not big fans of this vegetable. The seeds closely resemble split coriander seeds.

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