Ajwain (pronounced uj-wine) is a seed-like fruit often used in Pakistani 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 Pakistan, ajwain, also known as carom seeds or bishops weed, is rarely eaten raw and instead is cooked before adding to a recipe. It is sold in both seed and powder form, although cooking with seeds is more common.
What Is Ajwain?
Scientific name of ajwain seed is Trachyspermum ammi. 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 part of Asian, 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 South Asia and is now also grown in the Middle East and North Africa. Other names for ajwain are ajowan, caraway, ajave seeds, ajvain, ajwan, Ethiopian cumin, omam, and omum, depending on where it’s used in the world.
What Does It Taste Like?
Because both thyme and ajwain contain the compound thymol, the 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 Pakistani 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, raw or cooked ajwain can be added toward the end of the recipe; its sharpness is a pleasant counterpart to the richness of the ingredients. Otherwise, the seeds benefit 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.
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