I'm a spice freak. It's virtually impossible for me to pass up the chance to fritter time away in exotic markets of any ethnicity -- which is why my husband will often remind me that "we're supposed to be walking briskly, honey" when I pull him into some eye-catching, aromatic shop whose aisles are jam-packed with herbs and spices.
Once I'm inside a culinary casbah, I'm on the lookout for spices I've never tried before, because I love to cook and to experiment with new flavors. Recently, I came home with a little bag full of tiny seeds labeled as "black cumin."
I know regular cumin, of course -- I use it all the time in Mexican and Indian dishes. The black cumin seeds I bought didn't look anything like the cumin I know -- these obviously were from a different plant entirely.
I tasted them and liked their interesting thyme-oregano flavor -- which, I discovered, was delectable when sprinkled liberally on broiled salmon filets. They also make a tasty addition to breadcrumb or panko toppings for sauteed chicken breasts or fish.
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So I was intrigued when I got a press release a couple days ago from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Researchers there have been studying black cumin (Nigella sativa) and discovered that a chemical in its oil called thymoquinone (which, by the way, is also present in the essential oil of thyme -- hence the flavor similarity), is an anti-inflammatory that seems to inhibit the development of pancreatic cancer in lab studies.
Turns out, black cumin seeds and oil are used in traditional medicine by many Middle Eastern and Asian healers for a broad array of diseases, including some immune and inflammatory disorders, says Hwyda A. Arafat, MD, PhD, associate professor, departments of surgery and pathology, anatomy and cell biology at Jefferson Medical College.
The Greek physician Dioscorides supposedly used black cumin seeds to treat headaches and toothaches. One famous botanical historian, Maud Grieve, quoted Mohammed as saying that "black cumin cures every disease but death itself," in her 1930s classic, A Modern Herbal.
Arafat and her team discovered that when they treated pancreatic tumors (developed in animals for the study) with thymoquinone, 67% of the tumors shrunk significantly, and levels of inflammatory markers in the cells dropped substantially.
What's exciting about these results is that patients with chronic pancreatitis, which is associated with the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, might one day be able to benefit from black cumin oil treatment, says Dr. Arafat. "The herb and oil are safe when used in moderation, and have been used for thousands of years without reported toxic effects," she says.
According to my favorite Indian cookbook author, Madhur Jaffrey, black cumin seeds (nigella) are sold as kalonji in Indian and Pakistani markets, and as siyah danch in Middle Eastern markets. She says they're used in Bengal vegetable and fish dishes.
Try sauteing fresh spinach with ginger, hot chili, and a teaspoon of black cumin seeds, sprinkle it on fish before baking or broiling, or add a spoonful to lentils as you're cooking them. Find black cumin seeds online at Zamouri Spices.
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