Ajwain, also known as carum ajowan, is a spice used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Originally grown in Egypt, the seeds of the plant are tiny, pungent, and bitter. Ajwain tastes similar to thyme but is so strong that even a small amount added to any dish could steal the flavor. Traditionally touted as a cure-all, it is used to ease toothaches, indigestion, and bad breath.
The ajwain seed is widely grown in India, Iran, and Afghanistan, and has been used since ancient times for its healing properties. In India, it is known as omam and water distilled from the seeds is kept as a household tonic to treat flatulence and digestive problems. This also is common practice in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other Arabian countries. It is not, however, a spice that is common in the United States (US).
Ajwain is a relative of dill, caraway, and cumin, and is commonly mistaken for bishop's weed. The plant generally looks like parsley. It is a small shrub that usually has up to 12 blooms from which the seeds are extracted.
The seeds are usually oval, ridged, and gray or green in color. Raw seeds taste hot and peppery but grow milder when cooked. They usually should be stored in an airtight container in a cool dry place.
In the kitchen, the spice has a variety of uses. It is a staple of Indian cooking and is used to add zest to salad dressings, dips, chicken, vegetables, and batter for deep-frying. Also, it is a common ingredient in chutney and curry. A pinch of the seeds in a glass of buttermilk is said to promote digestion. In some regions of the world, it is tradition to follow a meal with mukhwas — a combination of ajwain, fennel, dill, sesame, nuts, and dried coconut — to freshen the breath.
Medicinally, ajwain appears to have unlimited uses. Oils extracted from crushed seeds are used to heal a range of illnesses from ear aches and ringworm to neuralgia and ulcers. One teaspoon of ground ajwain can be added to boiling water and used as a gargle for sore throats. A drop or two of the oil is said to relieve earaches.
Eating one teaspoon of ground ajwain can cleanse the digestive system and stimulate the appetite. Sniffing the bitter seeds can alleviate the effects of a cold or headache. It is also said to be an aphrodisiac.