The politics of the spice rack: nigella seeds

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.

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One of my favourite parts of cooking happens right before I start: when I open my cupboard to get a tin of tomatoes or pulses. The smell of the spices and staples combines into a gentle aroma in which no one spice is dominant – a smell that is almost good enough to eat in of itself.

I haven’t worked out yet exactly what the combination that make my store cupboard smell so good is, but I do know that nigella seeds are among the major players. You know the thick, rich smell that naan bread gives off? That’s work of nigella seeds.

Nigella seeds have a mystifyingly high number of names: most inexplicably “black cumin”. The seeds do not look particularly like cumin and they have a bitterer flavour – unlike cumin seeds, which I can happily chew or have in water as a lively but refreshing drink, nigella seeds are best used as an ingredient, though there is a brief moment of extreme pleasure when you eat them when you break them with your teeth, and an extra burst of fragrance travels up to your nose through your mouth. To make matters worse, there is another spice called black cumin which looks a lot more like cumin seeds.

As Gernot Katzer’s excellent blog on the history and etymology of spices explains, the one near-constant in the many, many names of nigella seeds is blackness: most of their names riff of their colour: in English, from the Latin “niger”, in Polish, where they are a mainstay of many recipes, czarnuszka, from czarny.

I primarily use nigella seeds for cooking food from the Indian subcontinent, though I intermittently flirt with trying to learn how to cook Polish food at one of Wood Green’s fantastic Polish restaurants, or at Mamuśka, one of the vanishingly small number of restaurants within walking distance of Parliament that is worth eating at.

Like so many spices, nigella seeds were used as a cure-all, though their actual medicinal properties are, as far as we know, close to zero. It was being cultivated by humans for use in cooking and medicine at least 1300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and the Ancient Egyptians believed it assisted the dead in making their journey to the next world – with the bitter black seeds found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Nigella seeds may not transport people to the afterlife, but for me, they are the exemplar of the power of smell – a spice whose main value isn’t what they add directly to food in terms of flavour, but what they contribute to the overall eating experience in terms of aroma.

This week I enjoyed

I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato, onion and butter pasta sauce (quite literally those are the only ingredients) and it was truly amazing. Very easy and utterly delicious, as so many of the pasta sauces in The Essentials of Italian Cooking are.

This week I messed up

Somehow I failed to make rice this week. I don’t mean “I didn’t get around to it”, I mean “I produced a goopy, gelatinous mess, failing to put together something I have successfully cooked hundreds of times in the past”.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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