Culinary experiments with your friend Nigella sativa

Black cumin or Nigella sativa

If I said that I can give you a substance which is, diuretic, antihypertensive, antidiabetic, anticancer, immunomodulatory, analgesic, antimicrobial, anthelmintics, analgesics, anti-inflammatory, spasmolytic, bronchodilator, gastroprotective, hepatoprotective, renal protective and also has antioxidant properties, you will laugh.  If I added that this substance can also be used in the treatment of various diseases such as bronchitis, asthma, diarrhea, rheumatism and skin disorders as well as to increase milk production in nursing mothers, you will laugh some more.  Of course, if I further added that this substance can help you to lose weight, you will equate me to a snake-oil salesman.  Please hold your laughter and skepticism and read on…

In materials section of A Short Course in Culinary Experiments, I have mentioned a spice called “Black caraway.”  This spice is also know by various other names such as black cumin, Roman coriander (more names are here) and the botanical name is Nigella sativa.  In Hindi, it is called kalonji and in Malayalam it is called karim jeerakam (കരിം ജീരകം), literally meaning, black cumin.  The only use ascribed to black cumin, at that time of writing the book, was in the preparation of garam masala.  Since black cumin is one of the constituents of garam masala and garam masala itself is used in very small quantities for cooking, the consumption of black cumin will not be much.  Recently, a good friend of mine asked me to look into the medical literature about black cumin.  And I did.  What I found was astounding.

Black cumin and the oil extracted from seeds have been used in traditional medicine in the India, Middle East and S. E. Asia for a long time.  I was able to locate 3 Auyervedic medical preparations, where black cumin is a constituent.  People have used black cumin for various maladies described in the beginning of this essay.  Numerous scientific publications are available, where the main attempt by the researchers is to scientifically validate some of the observations from traditional medicine.  However, these studies are not systematic – some are done on cell lines, some on animal-models, some on humans, and none in a rigorous way that a modern pharmaceutical compound is subjected to, prior to approval by government agencies that regulate food and medicines.  This does not negate the use of black cumin for some of the maladies listed above; only that you will not get a medical doctor to prescribe (or even suggest) black cumin, unless he/she wants lot of legal trouble.  A practitioner of Auyervedic medicine might tell you about the benefits of black cumin, but they are not part of the mainstream medical treatment in the US.

Numerous chemical compounds have been isolated and characterized from black cumin.  In the conventional pharmacological methodology, to find the utility of black cumin for medicine, each compound present in it will have to be evaluated separately, for the malady that you trying to cure.  Then, these compounds have to taken through various trails before it can be termed as a “medicine.”  I would have said this was the proper “scientific” way to find out whether a substance useful or not, until very recently.  Reading the book, Whole, by Prof. T. Colin Campbell changed my view.  (I have been recommending this book to everyone, and at some point, I will write a blog post about it.)  Finding the utility of constituents, one at a time, for one effect (from a whole food, for example) is the reductionist way of doing nutritional/pharmaceutical research.  At the moment, this is the norm for getting approval from scientific advisory panels, and eventually for the compounds to reach the market place, as medicines.  This is also the reason why people have so many medicines in their medicine cabinet.  Since one medicine can treat only one disease, you will be taking many medicines, if you have multiple diseases.  If a medicine has a side effect, then you will be taking another medicine to counteract the side effect of the first medicine.  We have been conditioned to believe that one chemical (or substance) can do only one thing in the body and hence the cause for the laughter and skepticism at the suggestion that there is a substance that can do more than one beneficial thing, without any side effects.

For understanding the minutia of biological processes, a reductionist approach in doing science is good.  One variable for one experiment is ideal; but in biological systems, there are always multiple variables, thus making the outcome of reductionist science less satisfactory.  In Auyerveda, a medication is often a mixture of various herbs and a reductionist scientific method will never fully analyze the utility or non-utility of various components present in the mixture, in a timely manner.  Hence, Auyerveda is relegated into the category of alternative/complementary medicine, by the practitioners of mainstream medicine.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the foremost government agency responsible for funding most of biomedical research in the US, recognized the value of the alternative medicine, and established a center called, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).  Their mission is to undertake scientific investigations to determine the usefulness and safety of complementary/alternative medicines for improving health and health care.  If they are successful in their mission, then, maybe, ancient medical practices like Auyerveda might enjoy a renaissance.

Black cumin as a spice

As far as using black cumin as a spice, the threshold is not as stringent as recommending black cumin as a medicine.  There are no reports of ill effects from taking black cumin as a food item.  And if this spice has medicinal benefits, consider that as a bonus.  Black cumin powder in capsule form, and oil from black cumin are available in health food stores and online suppliers.  For cooking, black cumin is available as whole seeds in Indian/Asian grocery stores (look for the label Kalonji).  Black cumin is about 3 times more expensive, compared to mustard seeds or regular cumin.  Since the usage of black cumin is unlikely to be extensive, the price differential may not be a budget-buster.  I will be posting my culinary experiments with black cumin in the future.  The first experiment on this series follows.

One of the variations in the preparation of lentils (toor dal), L3, is the doing the seasoning procedure with regular cumin instead of mustard seeds (variation # 6).  You can switch regular cumin with black cumin, volume for volume (1 teaspoon) for the seasoning procedure SM1.  The plain dal version of this can be mildly bitter from black cumin.  If you are adding tomato, or methi leaves, or lime juice to the dal, the mild bitter taste is hardly noticeable.  This preparation also offers an opportunity for those who want to take black cumin for it’s medicinal benefits – you can increase the volume of black cumin in the seasoning procedure SM1 to 2 or 3 teaspoons.

Seasoning procedure tips

The seasoning procedure with black cumin is slightly different from that for mustard seeds and regular cumin.  When you add mustard seeds to hot oil, they burst.  When the bursting stops, you will know that the mustard seeds are fully cooked and you can go with next step.  With regular cumin, when you add the cumin seeds to hot oil, there will be frothing and then, it will turn black quickly (thus the recommendation to add cumin to cold oil and then heat the mix).  Thus, the end point of cooking for mustard seeds and cumin seeds are easily identifiable.  With black cumin, it does not burst in hot oil and because of the black color, there is also no visible clue to gauge the end point for cooking, with a change in color.  So, here my suggestion: add the black cumin seeds to hot oil, and you will see frothing.  Wait for the frothing to subside (about 30 seconds), then you can proceed with the rest of the seasoning procedure.  If you wait for all the frothing to stop, there is a possibility for black cumin to char.  Alternatively, you can cook the black cumin along with the lentils and then do the seasoning with 1 teaspoon of regular cumin.

Black cumin – Useful links

1) Review on obesity and weight loss

2) Review on cardiovascular benefits

3) Review on pharmacology

4) An exhaustive summary of medicinal benefits

To get the e-book of A Short Course in Culinary Experiments, click here for the Amazon Kindle Store.

h/t to Murali & Parvathi of Baltimore.

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