May 16, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Ajwain, Ajowan, Carom, Omam, Bishop's Weed


Ajwain looks like fuzzy caraway seeds but tastes nothing like caraway.

Ajwain is a member of the parsley family and is often confused with many other spices like caraway, lovage seeds, and celery seeds. Adding to the confusion ajwain goes by many different names: ajowan, carom, bishop's weed, omam, omum, Königskümmel, Indischer Kümmel, Egyptian caraway, and al-kumun al-muluki. The spice's name can be traced to the Sanskrit word "yavani" meaning "Greek." This suggests that the spice originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and arrived in India in during the ancient Greek conquest of Central Asia. It isn't really known why the Arabs call ajwain as al-kumun al-muluki or the "king's cumin," but the German name Königskümmel or "king's caraway" probably derives from it.

The flowers of the ajwain plant
To add even further to taxonomic confusion the ajwain plant has several different botanical names too: Carum copticumCarum ajowan, Ptychotis ajowanAmmi copticum, and Trachyspermum ammi. Ajwain is an annual herbaceous plant about 1 to 2 feet in height and is mainly cultivated in Rajasthan. What is referred to as the spice or seeds are actually the tiny fruits of the plant. Both the seeds or fruits as well as the leaves are eaten in India. Analysis of ajwain seeds or fruits commonly eaten as a spice in India reveals a thymol content of almost 98%. Thymol is the same compound that flavors the herb thyme as well as original Listerine mouthwash.

The flavor of ajwain seeds has been described variously as having notes of thyme, anise, cumin, and oregano. I get an initial blast of almost mentholated thyme as in original flavor Listerine mouthwash out of ajwain seeds. A bit of an earthy cumin note follows this mouth numbing blast adding to it's complexity. The flavor is similar to but definitely less subtle than thyme,  none of the subtle floral nuances of thyme are present in ajwain. The thyme note is so strong it borders on the camphoraceous or eucalyptic. Ajwain is certainly what I'd call an accent spice.

Ajwain is used in a variety of dishes in South Asia.  It often flavors pickles, dals, beans, tops flatbreads or savory pastries, and adds complexity to bland or starchy vegetable curries. Because of ajwain's pungent flavor it is definitely a spice that must be dry roasted or fried to mellow it's harshness before use in a dish. Never grind ajwain either, just bruise it lightly in a mortar and pestle or it's strong flavor may overtake a dish. 

Bhelpuri, a snack sold on the street in South Asia typically served in a newspaper cone with a spoon for eating on the go.
(There are no drive thru windows in South Asia YET.)
The one exception to not grinding ajwain would be chat masala. "Chat" or "chaat" is usually a snack often sold by street vendors that this spice blend or "masala" is often used upon. Above is a picture of "bhelpuri" a chat which is usually a mixture of chopped tomatoes, broken papdis, cilantro, potatoes, peanuts, peas, bean sprouts, raw onion, puffed rice, chutneys, and sev. (Sev is the squiggly yellow noodles made of chickpeas on top.) A hefty dollop of chat masala is in there too!


My particular favorite is Catch's Magic Masala.  It boasts a sweet, sour, salty, and umami mix with not only ground ajwain but asafoetida, mint, kala namak/black salt, amchur, long pepper, and a variety of other piquant ingredients. Want to pep up potatoes, rev up a raita, fire up a fruit salad, jazz up some juice, tart up some tofu, or exuberantly enhance eggs? Sprinkle a little of Catch's Chat Masala on them and you're in for a taste sensation!

A cheerfully embellished chat wagon specializing in bhelpuri .
This chatwalla is not taking any chances, he has Ganesh & Laxmi painted on his sign!

Calmly currying on,
Bibi

6 comments:

  1. What a lovely bhelpuri cart!

    I don't think I've ever tried ajwain on its own; you've intrigued me now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Mim,
      Ajwain seeds are definitely an interesting flavor! I wonder if the original Listerine was based on them. They are chewed in India to relieve flatulence but not bad breath though.

      Delete
  2. Love me some bhelpuri at sunset! There was a festival trader a few years ago who'd spent years in Calcutta and painted up a cart like that - went down a storm with a cider! xxx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Vix,
      I don't know about the UK but in the US there is no way a cart like that would get past a health inspector. I've noticed a lot of chat carts here in South Asia getting a little more attentive to hygiene with glass enclosures around the ingredients rather than everything out in the open.
      xox

      Delete
  3. I like the idea of using puffed rice in a savoury snack. I've been known to eat puffed rice/wheat in a bowl with salsa, so bhelpuri would definitely be my sort of thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Goody,
      I've never eaten bhelpuri but I think serving it in a newspaper cone is the cooliest!

      Delete

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