Nigella Seeds (Kalonji) v. Black Cumin

Indian Cooking FAQ — Questions from our readers! Black cumin seeds (Black Jeera) v. Nigella seeds (Kalonji)


Nigella Seeds (Kalonji) v. Black Cumin

Left: nigella seeds (also known as kalonji) and Right: black cumin (also known as black jeera and different from regular/white cumin)

Dear Big Apple Curry,

I got confused in the Chicken with 40 Garlic Cloves (December 2013) when you wrote:

“At the 401 level you are becoming a real pro and will have to visit an Indian grocer or specialty store to buy spices (such as black cumin seeds and nigella seeds) that you won’t be able to find easily at your local supermarket.”

Thinking that black cumin and nigella were two different types. Aren’t black cumin, nigella and kalonji the same seed with different names?

And kalonji has a different name sometimes, known as onion seed I think. I saw it mentioned as something you sprinkle on Afghan snowshoe bread.

Hope you had a nice Super Bowl. Keep up the great work.


Dear Reader!

Yes, it can be confusing, especially with so many different names in different languages, in fact (English, Hindi, Urdu) — so here’s the deal: black cumin is a separate spice from kalonji (aka nigella seed) in all dimensions — look, feel, smell, and taste.

Black Cumin aka Black Jeera

Black cumin comes from Bunium bulbocastanum, a plant species in the Apiaceae family, and is sometimes called blackseed or black caraway. If you picture white cumin seeds (which are used frequently in Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern cuisines, to name but a few), black cumin seeds are much thinner and feathery looking, and the taste and aroma is smoky with hints of sweetness and citrus.

Making lamb biryani

See the black feathery specks with the white onion? That is black cumin or black jeera.

Lamb Biryani

I use black cumin in dishes like this lamb biryani and my Indian-style Chicken with 40 Garlic Cloves

Kalonji aka Nigella Seeds

Kalonji or nigella seeds, on the other hand, come from Nigella sativa — an annual flowering plant that produces fruit that contains numerous seeds. Nigella seeds look like small bits of black coal (the easiest way for me to describe it!) and also impart a smoky taste but sharper (no hints of sweetness). You can really taste the difference if these are omitted from a dish — I use kalonji in dishes like baingan burtha.

Baingan burtha

See those black seeds that look like bits of coal in the center of the pan and along the bottom? Those are nigella seeds, also known as kalonji.

Baingan burtha

Baingain burtha, North India’s signature eggplant dish simply wouldn’t get the same smokiness without the addition of nigella seeds or kalonji and cooked slowly over a medium flame.