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Kala jeera is a spice that is popular in Northern Indian cuisine. It is used to flavor meat and rice dishes, with a distinct rich, nutty, slightly grassy taste. This spice is also known as black cumin, which can be confusing, since several other seeds are also given the same name. Its scientific name of is Bunium persicum, which may help shoppers in doubt, and the seeds are small, dark brown, and crescent shaped, with a sharp, bitter odor before cooking or toasting.
Like regular cumin, kala jeera is in the parsley family. The plant is native to Central Asia and Northern India, where it has been used in cooking for centuries. The seeds are also pressed to yield an essential oil, which is used in some traditional medicinal practices. It is said to be particularly helpful for digestive issues, and it is also used on some topical injuries such as boils. In parts of India, the root of the plant is used in cooking as well.
Before they are cooked, kala jeera seeds have a sharp, earthy, heavy scent that can seem rather unpleasant. As they cook, however, the seeds develop a nutty flavor and scent that can greatly enhance the foods that they are cooked with. The seeds may be baked into breads, added to curry pastes and blends, or steamed with rice to give it a distinctive scent, especially in Northern Indian food. When this spice is not available, some cooks use toasted conventional cumin instead.
Some people confuse black cumin with Nigella, an entirely unrelated spice. For an unknown reason, this other plant is sometimes also called “black cumin,” although the two spices are nothing alike. Nigella is pungent and slightly bitter with a hint of sweet fruit, and the seeds are small, black, and sharply pointed. Bengali cuisine often incorporates it, which is also known as black onion or fennel flower. All of these names are misnomers, as Nigella is in its own genus, and it is a distinctive spice in its own right.
As with all spices, kala jeera should be stored in a cool dry place, and preferably in the dark. When cooks need it for a recipe, the seeds should be measured first from the storage container into a small dish, never directly over cooking food, as the heat or humidity can get into the container and spoil the spice. The seeds should be used within six months to one year, and toast them before they are used for an especially strong, distinctive flavor.