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What is Kala Jeera?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1004088 — On Nov 14, 2020

@ Bear78: Sorry to have to correct you, but ajwain are not coriander seeds!

Ajwain are Carom Seeds.

Dhania, or daniya, are Coriander Seeds

By anon1000858 — On Jan 14, 2019

Fify - Nigella seeds is Kalonji in Hindi.

By anon1000857 — On Jan 14, 2019

Bear78 ajwain is Thyme seeds. Corriander seeds are Dhania seeds.

By letshearit — On Jul 26, 2011

I fell in love with kala jeera while I was traveling in India. I really loved the nutty flavor it gave to meat and rice dishes. One of my favorite ways to enjoy kala jeera is to add it to basmati rice with a little oil, some bay leaves and salt. It is quick and easy and makes a really great side dish.

For those that are feeling a little more experimental adding some kala jeera to the meats you are roasting can really add some amazing flavor to them. The best is getting some extra tender lamb and cooking it with the kala jeera and any other spices that strike your fancy.

By wander — On Jul 26, 2011

Kala jeera is actually amazing for those who have stomach troubles. If you boil the kala jeera seeds and drink the water after it has cooled enough you can reap some of the great natural benefits of it.

Kala jeera helps to relieve indigestion, gasiness, up set stomachs, and diarrhea. It has even been proven to help with morning sickness. From experience I can tell you that it really does wonders during the stomach flu season. I find it calms my stomach quite a bit.

Before you take any natural supplements though it is a good idea to talk about it with your doctor. With anything there is always a chance of interaction with other medications or food.

By burcidi — On Jul 26, 2011

@fify-- You are so right, spice names can get confusing. Even Indians are sometimes confused by the names because each region in India can have a different name in a different language for a particular spice.

For example, I have heard kala jeera being referred to as "shah zeera" before. This name for kala jeera was used during the Moghul rule of India. Moghul emperors were cooked dishes with kala jeera which was a very expensive spice at that time. That's why the name was associated with them, as "shah" means "king" in Farsi. So kala jeera actually has a very long history, it's the spice that was served to Indian kings.

By bear78 — On Jul 25, 2011

I love pulao with kala jeera. I love all rice dishes in general and pulao is very basic with spices. I think kala jeera fits this recipe perfectly. I would not make pulao without it.

I have also heard about kala jeera in masala spice mixes. Kala jeera might be good with kala namak and some ajwain. Kala namak means black salt and ajwain is coriander seeds.

By fify — On Jul 25, 2011

I think the number of spices in Indian cooking and their similarities is one of the reasons why Westerners are reluctant to try it.

I've definitely been confused many times and have bought the wrong spice. Once you get associated with the basic common Indian spices though, telling them apart will be easier.

For example, kala jeera and nigella really do look very different. Kala jeera is a dark brown color (sometimes even reddish), skinny and long. Nigella is a dark black or bluish black and is somewhat round shaped, but very uneven.

I would also recommend always using the actual native names when searching for Indian spices. If you ask for black cumin, you might get many different things. But all Indian grocery shops will know exactly what you mean if you say kala jeera.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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