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Mad About Spices: Ajwain, Meet Romanesco

You may have run across ajwain seeds in recipes from noted Indian cooks like Madhur Jaffrey. These savory seeds provide essential flavor to many Indian dishes, in particular the vegetarian cuisine of Uttar Pradesh, although they are believed to have originated in Egypt.

Pronounced AHJ-a-wahn, and also referred to as bishop's weed and or carom seeds, this spice looks like a bit like caraway or cumin. Its taste can be described as a bit like thyme, but kickier, more pungent and less floral than the European herb.

Ajwain seeds grow extensively in India, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, where they are featured in savory recipes including breads and biscuits. They also add unique flavors to vegetable dishes. 

When cooking with whole ajwain, the seeds are first crushed and then added at the final stage of preparation. This is because prolonged cooking results in the evaporation of ajwain’s essential oils.

Ajwain is used sparingly, whether on its own or with other spices, in a method called tadka (tempering) in which the oil is heated until very hot and the spices are added to release the aromatic flavors. The infused oil is then used to finish the recipe.

You will find ajwain in many Indian vegetable dishes, such as legumes — particularly lentils — and in curries with chicken and fish. In the Middle East, ajwain’s distinctive taste is used to elevate the flavor of rice and meat dishes, and serves as a flavoring and preserving agent for pickles, chutneys, and jams.

In addition to its many culinary applications, ajwain is is rich in fiber and antioxidants. It is widely used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for both indigestion and toothaches.

Ajwain seeds are sold whole and dried, ready to be ground and mixed with other spices or simply used whole in breads, desserts and savory dishes like this colorful omelet. The recipe works fine with regular broccoli, but my boys and I love it with twirly green romanesco. For freshest flavor, look for heads of romanesco that are firm, with a few crisp leaves still attached to the stem. Get the recipe: Romanesco Omelet with Ajwain Seeds »»