Jan 24, 2016

Ingredients: Shahi Jeera, Black Cumin, Himali Jeera, Koshur Zur. Kala Jeera, Kashmiri Jeera, Kala Zeera

shahi jeera black cumin seeds fruits
Shahi jeera/black cumin 

This is the uncommon spice variously called shahi jeera, black cumin, Kashmiri jeera, Himali jeera, Koshur zur, or kala jeeraShahi means royal or fit for a king. Shah is a word of Persian derivative and means high king. If you add an "i" to the end of any Hindi or Urdu noun it becomes an adjective. Jeera (or zeera in Urdu) means cumin and is a word of Persian origin meaning fragrant or of pleasant aroma. So "shahi jeera" translates to "royal cumin."

Bunium persicum
The shahi jeera or black cumin plant (Bunium persicum) is native to northern India and Central Asia. It prefers the dry, scrubby slopes of the Himalayas or the mountains of Central Asia. It is a perennial plant that grows to two feet in height. What looks like seeds are actually the tiny fruits of Bunium persicum. The roots are also cooked and eaten eaten in Kashmir and have the taste of sweet chestnuts.

Flowers of Bunium persicum
(The shahi jeera plant)
The flavor of shahi jeera/black cumin seeds is very similar to the earthy notes of cumin but somewhat milder. It also has a bit of herbaceous note and a mildly astringent tang. When cooked the flavor becomes slightly nutty and will not overpower a dish with earthiness as cumin can do.

Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir
Kashmir is the only region in India where shahi jeera/black cumin is cultivated. The Mughals summered in the high valleys of Kashmir to escape the miserable heat of the monsoon season on the Indian plains. The seeds of shahi jeera/black cumin were quite popular with the Mughals and featured in many dishes of the royal court.

Caraway seeds and nigella seeds are NOT the same as shahi jeera/black cumin. I see a lot of confusion on Indian cooking blogs and in Indian cookbooks about the spice shahi jeera. Indian cooking blogs and cookbooks often incorrectly suggest caraway seeds as a substitute for  shahi jeera. I've seen nigella seeds often mislabeled or being sold as shahi jeera in India a lot too. They are somewhat similar in appearance, but all are from different plants and have completely different flavors.

Shahi jeera/black cumin close up for comparison-

 shahi jeera, black cumin, Kashmiri jeera, Himali jeera, Koshur zur, or kala jeera.
Shahi Jeera/Black cumin
Caraway seeds are from the plant Carum carvi and have an aromatic flavor that's a combination of mild licorice-y anise with a dash of dill and carrot. Caraway seeds are native to Europe and are responsible for the unique flavor in rye bread. I just bought a loaf of rye bread from the local German bakery and it reeks of shahi jeera not caraway. YUK.

These are caraway seeds.

Nigella seeds/kalonji are from the plant Nigella sativa. Often confusingly called black cumin or onion seeds these matte black pyramidal shaped seeds taste like oregano.

These are nigella or kalonji seeds.

Just for comparison here are some ordinary cumin/jeera seeds which are also called "white cumin" -

Cumin/jeera seeds

Helpful hints:
A good substitute for shahi jeera just would be cumin in a lesser amount. Cumin is closest in flavor to shahi jeera but much stronger. Do NOT use caraway seeds or nigella/kalonji as they have entirely different flavor.


  1. Hmm, I'd never substitute nigella for cumin of any sort - completely different flavour! Wonder why it gets suggested? Do you think it's the colour? I can see a visual similarity between cumin and caraway, but not caraway and shahi jeera, and as you say the taste would be a world away. My instinct would always be to use regular cumin if I couldn't get the shahi sort (come to think of it, that's one spice we *don't* have in our cupboard).

  2. Hi Mim,
    I'm not sure why caraway is suggested as substitute for shahi jeera. The flavors are nothing alike.
    Mediterranean bay leaves are often suggested as a substitute for tej patta/Indian bay leaf/cassia leaves in Indian cookbooks & cooking blogs too . Cassia leaves taste like mild cinnamon, Mediterranean bay laurel leaves taste NOTHING like cinnamon.

    As far as shahi jeera goes, I have a jar of the real stuff from Kashmir & to tell you the truth the flavor is nothing to get too excited about. It's a VERY mild cumin flavor with a SLIGHT grassy, nutty note. The delicate crunch of the tiny fruits is interesting, & shahi jeera is supposed to have some Unani/Ayurvedic health benefits. I've only used it for a Mughal themed dinner party we had which required it in several 'authentic' dishes. The only thing it's delicate and mild flavor really stood out in was a dish called Safed Maaz (White Mutton) which was a delicately flavored yogurt based curry of all white mutton pieces with a white sauce. Our Indian dinner guests were a bit freaked out by the look of a white curry!

  3. Thank you so much for the enlightenment! The pics were helpful too.

    1. Hi Ananya,
      Thank you for you comment! Please stop by again!

  4. Thank you so much for the enlightenment and pics. Very helpful.

  5. Hi Ananya,
    Thank you for stopping by!

  6. You have no idea how helpful this article is!
    Yes- I know caraway seeds, I often bake with them, and it's nothing like shahi jeera.
    Thanks for your suggestions and enlightenment on this subject!

    1. Hi Adelina,
      Thank you! And thanks for stopping by!

  7. Very helpful article along my path of discovery through the world of herbs and spices. So much needless confusion around! Thanks.

  8. This is the first article that popped up in my search for 'shahjeera,' which I just bought at my local Indian store. I was googling because on the back of the package it says 'Ingredient: Caraway Seeds.' This is the first time I've bought this brand. Strange. I've cooked with all of the spices you mention, and one could never mistake shahi jeera and caraway for each other--the difference in flavor is striking.

    Looking forward to reading your blog!

    1. Hi ka11,
      Thank you! Welcome to my blog!
      Surprisingly enough this post has gotten more views than any other post on my blog.


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