Serious Eats

Spice Hunting: Charnushka

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Charnushka is a spice that goes by many names: nigella sativa, onion seed, kaloji. Figuring out what exactly it is takes a while. It's the seed of a flower (though not an onion) that looks like something aliens dropped off on a recent visit. But as weird as it seems, and as unassuming but decidedly odd as it smells, it's an incredibly versatile spice that's easy to love. Subtle but assertive, exotic and familiar, it has all the makings of a beguiling secret ingredient.

What Does It Taste Like?

Charnushka has a broad flavor profile that works well with a variety of ingredients. It's peppery but also a little sweet, slightly bitter, with the pungency of thyme and a lingering touch of licorice. When dry toasted or fried whole (usually for wet-cooked dishes) it's delicate and piquant, and depending on what you pair it with, its different complimentary flavors come to the fore. When ground it has the intensely sweet aroma of black sesame paste and tastes much more intense. I prefer grinding it for dry cooking, such as roasting, so its aromatic oils can mingle more with other ingredients. Faint whispers or assertive spicing: it's up to you.

How Do You Use It?

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Delicious spice AND alien plant. [Photograph: Wikipedia]

Panch phoron, the Indian spice mix used for vegetables, legumes, and fish, uses charnushka for a nutty and pepper-like bite. This stuff is made for curries—as part of a spice mix or all on its own. Conventional ingredients take well it to it, such as potatoes and lentils, but it's also perfect for exploring Indian squashes like bottle gourd or complex, layered kormas.

But charnushka has plenty of uses beyond Indian cuisine. For one, it's a frequent addition to rye bread. I like to stud country-style loaves with equal parts charnushka and ajwain along with a larger amount of black sesame seeds. The resulting bread demands nothing more than some butter to help spread all its herbal and nutty notes.

Herbs also pair remarkably well with charnushka. Add some thyme with it as a rub for baked chicken, or sprinkle some into a sweet potato and sage hash. Charnushka has an herbiness all its own and a heady aroma that contrasts herbal grassiness. These same qualities make it an interesting pickling spice, good for robust vegetables like cauliflower or beets, especially when used in tandem with mustard seeds. In all these applications, charnushka never takes center stage to announce itself, but it provides textural and subtle aroma compliments and a hard-to-pin-down flavor.

I like it most with fruit. Specifically, tomatoes. In yet another display of versatility, charnushka is a fabulous substitute for black pepper, and it's perfect with ripe tomatoes. While black pepper's raw bite could be overwhelming, charnushka adds just enough to cut the tomato's sweetness while adding flavors all its own. It's a shoe-in for a tomato salad, but my favorite is a simple mess of roasted tomatoes and zucchini, dripping in their own juices (and a healthy amount of olive oil) and begging for some crispy potatoes to sop up all the mess.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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