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Ajowan seeds are an Indian spice which come from the plant of the same name, also known as carom or bishop's weed. The spice appears in a variety of Indian dishes, and it has an intense thyme like flavor, along with a zesty kick, especially when used fresh. Stores which stock Indian spices will probably carry whole ajowan seeds, and they are also available through special order. Like other spices, ajowan seeds should be kept whole in a cool dry place until use for the best flavor. To determine whether or not they are still good, crush them lightly to see if they still smell strong.
The botanical name for the plant is Trachyspermum ammi, and it is in the family Umbelliferae, along with dill, caraway, and cumin. Like the seeds of these plants, ajowan seeds are small and roughly crescent shaped, with a silky thread at one end of the seed. The bush-like plant has feathery leaves and red flowers, and grows up to two feet (61 centimeters) in height. It prefers hot, dry climates.
Some people eat ajowan seeds raw and whole, crunching them between the teeth. The flavor of raw seeds is hot, fiery, and bitter, and it can leave the mouth slightly numb. When cooked, the intensity of the flavor is mitigated, allowing more of the thyme-like flavor to rise in the dish. Ajowan seeds are used in a wide range of Indian dishes from breads to curries, along with an assortment of other herbs and spices.
When using the seeds whole in cooking, they should be lightly crushed to release the volatile oils which create the distinctive flavor. Whole ajowan seeds can also be ground in a mortal and pestle or spice mill. As a general rule, the seeds should be ground immediately before use, to preserve the intense flavor. People who are unfamiliar with the spice may want to use it in moderation until they familiarize themselves with the flavor.
When you are making Indian cuisine, try dry roasting the spices in the pan before you add oil, to intensify the flavor. This can generate a great deal of smoke, so make sure to do it in a ventilated area. If your Indian foot has felt flat, flavorwise, roasting the spices may change that for you. You can also try adding the seeds to doughs for Indian breads such as naan. Ajowan seeds do not, as a general rule, become rancid, although they may lose some of their flavor if kept for too long.
Ajowan seeds are a great addition to the Indian bread naan. I find that once they are baked into the bread they lose a bit of that intense heat they normally carry.
Naan is possibly one of my favorite foods and I love experimenting with adding different things to it. If you don't plan on making your own naan you can always go to your local Indian restaurant and see if they have any ajowan seeds in stock. Usually it isn't a big deal for them to add some to your bread.
If you aren't able to try ajowan, even something like garlic naan is better than regular naan. It just adds a little something extra to an already amazing food.
When I was traveling through India a man gave me some ajowan seeds to try. I was lucky that I was a bit tentative to do so because they were shockingly hot. I felt like my mouth was on fire before it went numb.
I guess it is a bit of a joke in India to get a foreigner to try ajowan seeds, kind of like when you visit other countries famous for spicy foods and they always want you to try the hottest thing. For some reason they always want to see your reaction to it. I suppose they get a kick out of it.
Ajowan seeds aren't something I would eat straight again, but I wouldn't put past cooking with it. I am a pretty experimental chef, so who knows when I will need something fiery hot and a bit bitter.