A little nigella adds spice to your buns (+recipe)

By Monica Bhide

Nigella is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Photo / Thinkstock
Nigella is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Photo / Thinkstock

Let's talk about nigella. No - not the famous food personality. I mean the spice.

I found a chef who loves nigella the spice (I did not ask him about Nigella Lawson), and we talked about this little-known wonder.

Richard Ruben, author of The Farmer's Market Cookbook (The Lyons Press, 2006), told me he first loved nigella because it "called to him" from the spice shelves, alerting him to the fact that perhaps he did not know the spice.

But then he realised that he did know it: He had been visited by the spice all his life as charnushka, a topping for the traditional Eastern European rye bread that was always in his mother's breadbasket.

"It was like finally putting a face with the voice. I am now surprised how often I encounter these seeds, primary on breads from rye to naan to pita," he said.

"I was quite intrigued by this mysterious seed that I now connected with Eastern Europe and the foods of the subcontinent. Then I found it was commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine."

That is where I first found out about nigella, too - on Middle Eastern breads - and then I noticed that my mother used it in Indian preparations as well.

Commonly known as nigella, this spice is also found under the name "onion seeds".

But as Ruben correctly pointed out to me, these seeds bear no botanical connection to the ubiquitous allium that he uses daily.

The plant they come from is actually related to buttercups. It is also sometimes referred to as black cumin or black caraway, but again, it is related to neither.

I have always loved the nutty, peppery flavour of these tiny, flat black seeds, but I've also always been a bit wary of using too much of them, as they add a lot of bitterness really quickly.

In working with nigella, Ruben said, he finds them to be slightly bitter/smoky with an herbaceous note reminiscent of oregano. When ground as part of a seasoning mix, that herby quality acts as a primary fragrance.

Ruben and I prefer using the seeds whole, not only for the complex taste but also for the texture.

When buying nigella, think small - a little goes a long way. Ruben advises storing it in the freezer, since exposure to light and heat releases the volatile oils - thus, in turn, removing the sought-after fragrance.

When using nigella, warm it first.

"If I am using nigella seeds as a finish as I do with roasted potatoes, I gently toast them before sprinkling them over the finished dish," advises Ruben.

It is easily available at Indian grocers.


Makes 6 burgers

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
450g ground turkey
About 1 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste
2 teaspoons zaatar (Middle Eastern spice mixture)
1 tablespoon nigella seeds
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until browned, stirring occasionally. Transfer the onions to a large bowl and cool completely.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. (Your hands will work best for mixing.) Form the mixture into six patties.

3. Heat the remaining oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook the patties in the skillet for about six minutes a side, until fully cooked but not dry.

4. Serve immediately with your favourite burger accompaniments.


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