Ajwain (pronounced aj’o-wen) is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which has some 2,700 members including dill, caraway and cumin. It is mostly found in Indian cooking, where it is also known as bishop’s weed or carom. It is particularly suited to the delicate vegetarian fare found in the state of Gujarat.
Ajwain seeds are used as a spice. The greyish-green seeds are striped and curved (similar to cumin or caraway seeds in appearance), often with a fine silk stalk attached. They are usually sold whole. The seeds are often chewed on their own for medicinal value, tasting bitingly hot and bitter, leaving the tongue numb for a while. Cooking ajwain mellows it somewhat. When crushed, they have a strong and distinctive thyme-like fragrance.
- Bouquet: a pungent thyme/cumin fragrance
- Flavour: a harsh thyme-like flavour with a bit of a kick, leaving a milder, pleasant aftertaste
- Hotness Scale: 5/10
Preparation and Storage
Ajwain is usually ground in mortar and pestle, or crushed by rubbing between hands or fingertips before using. When used whole, for parathas or other breads, lightly bruise the seeds first, to release oils and increase flavour. The seeds can be stored indefinitely if kept from light in airtight containers.
Cooking with Ajwain
Ajwain has a particular affinity to starchy foods like savoury pastries and breads, especially parathas. Snacks like Bombay mix and potato balls get an extra kick from ajwain. It is also good with green beans and root vegetables. Lentil dishes and recipes using besan (chickpea flour). It is occasionally an ingredient of Curry Powder.
Ajwain seeds contain an essential oil which is about 50% thymol which is a strong germicide, anti-spasmodic and fungicide. Thymol is also used in toothpaste and perfumery. It is used in a steeped liquid form against diarrhea and flatulence. In India the seeds are used as a household remedy for indigestion and colic, and used in poultices to relieve asthma and arthritis. It also has aphrodisiac properties and the Ananga Ranga prescribes it for increasing a husband’s enjoyment in his middle years.
Plant Description and Cultivation
Ajwain is and annual herbaceous, 30 -70 cm (1 -2 ft) in height, bearing feathery leaves and red flowers. When the seeds are ripe, they are dried and threshed. Ajwain is native to India, but is also cultivated in Iran, Egypt Pakistan and Afghanistan.