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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.
I have a recipe for spicy zucchini that uses ajwain. When I say it is spicy, I mean the kind of spicy reserved for those who can tolerate most Indian food. I have had friends spit this out into a cup of water while drinking it to try and cool their mouths. To me, it is very good, though.
I dice three large zucchini into small pieces. I put them in a mixing bowl and add three tablespoons of bengal gram flour, one half teaspoon of turmeric powder, one teaspoon of cumin, and one half teaspoon of red chili powder. Then, I add a dash of salt and mix it all together, coating the zucchini thoroughly.
Next, I heat some sunflower cooking oil over medium heat. I add ajwain seeds to the skillet and sprinkle them with cumin. I cook them until they stop making noise. Then, I put the zucchini in and cook until the coating is brown.
My neighbor is from India, and I often smell wonderful aromas coming from her apartment. She uses ajwain in several of her favorite dishes, but she also told me of a home remedy that can be made with it.
I often get sinus congestion. I find myself unable to breathe through my nose, and no over-the-counter medicine helps. She told me that I need to add one tablespoon of ajwain to two cups of boiling water. While it boils, she said I should hang my head over the pot and inhale the steam as deeply as possible.
I tried it, and the ajwain actually was strong enough to open my sinuses. I had to do it twice a day, because they eventually closed back up, but I was amazed that it worked at all.