Ajwain, pronounced as uj-wine, is a seed-like fruit often used in Indian cooking as part of a spice mixture. It looks similar to fennel and cumin seeds and is highly fragrant, smelling like thyme. Its taste, however, is more like oregano and anise due to the bitter notes and strong flavor. Because of its pungency, a little goes a long way. Grown in India and Iran, ajwain, also known as carom seeds or bishops weed, is rarely eaten raw and instead is cooked before adding to a recipe.
What Is Ajwain?
Like coriander, cumin, and fennel, ajwain belongs to the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family of plants. The shrub's leaves are feather-like and the plant's fruit—often referred to as seeds—are pale khaki-colored, ridged in texture, and oval shaped. Ajwain has been used since ancient times in cooking and for medicinal purposes and is mostly sold in seed form since it is rarely used as a powder. It is part of Indian, Middle Eastern, and African cooking.
The ajwain plant is thought to have originated in Persia (Iran) and Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). From there, it spread to India and is now also grown in the Middle East and North Africa. Other names for ajwain are ajowan, ajowan caraway, ajave seeds, ajvain, ajwan, Ethiopian cumin, omam, and omum, depending on where in the world it is being used.
What Does It Taste Like?
Because both thyme and ajwain contain the compound thymol, the Indian spice emits similar notes as the green herb. However, ajwain also combines this earthy, mint taste with the bitterness found in oregano, the bite of cumin, and the licorice flavor of anise, which mostly appears after the fact. Carom makes a complex and powerful statement and can overwhelm other ingredients.
Cooking With Ajwain
Because of its strong, dominant flavor, ajwain is used in small quantities and is almost always cooked. In Indian cooking, the spice is often part of the tadka in a dish. Tadka, or tempering, is a cooking method in which oil or butter (most often ghee) is heated until very hot, and whole spices are added and fried, creating what is called a chaunk. This oil and spice mixture is then incorporated into lentil dishes or added as a final touch or garnish to a dish.
If cooking a dish high in fat or starch, ajwain can be added—raw or cooked—toward the end of the recipe; its sharpness is a pleasant counterpart to the richness of the ingredients. Otherwise, the seed benefits from a long cooking time as the heat mellows out the thyme flavor and brings out more of the anise aftertaste. The seeds are also used in bread and biscuit dough and then sprinkled over the top when baked.
If a recipe calls for powdered carom, the seeds should be roasted, cooled, and then ground into a fine powder.
Recipes With Ajwain
In Indian recipes, ajwain is used in curries and as a tadka in pakoras and dals, as well as a flavoring in breads. Middle Eastern recipes incorporate carom to boost the flavor of meat and rice dishes and as a preservative in chutneys, pickles, and jams.
Where to Buy Ajwain
Ajwain seed can be found in Indian food markets, specialty spice shops, and online. Although it is most often sold in seed form, if you do find powdered it is best to pass up as the flavor will have diminished; instead, buy the seeds and grind them at home as needed. Most often, you will find the spice offered in bulk or packaged in plastic bags. Choose carom seeds that look fresh and crisp with a strong smell; ajwain that has been sitting on a shelf a long time will have lost much of its scent.
If the ajwain was sold in bulk or in a plastic bag, it will need to be transferred to another container. If you have a large amount, place some in a recycled spice jar or small glass container and pour the rest into a larger glass container. (Glass does not absorb flavor like plastic can.) Store the carom seed in a cool, dark place where it will last for at least a year.
Health Benefits of Ajwain
Ajwain is valued for its healing and curative properties and has been used for ages as a medicinal ingredient in Ayurveda, the Hindu system of medicine that believes in balance in the body. The seed has been shown to assist with stomach issues, cold symptoms and rheumatoid arthritis.
Chewing raw carom seeds (alone or with a little sugar) can help with digestion. Ajwain also has properties that help reduce the flatulence-causing effect of beans, and has been shown to cure diarrhea, dysentery, and indigestion when made into a "tea"; 1 tablespoon of ajwain is boiled in 1 cup of water until the water is reduced to half its original volume.
To relieve symptoms of a cold, like a stuffed nose, 1 tablespoon of ajwain is added to a bowl of boiling water and the steam is inhaled. Ajwain oil, which is made by crushing the seeds and steam distillation, has been shown to ease rheumatic pain when applied to the affected part of the body.
Watson RR, Preedy VR. Nuts and Seeds in Health and Disease Prevention. Elsevier Science. 2011.