July 12, 2023
Take a tiny pinch of ajwain, sprinkle it into your mouth, and chew. Don't worry - it's safe. But, you'll notice that your mouth will immediately warm and you'll taste a strong, slightly bitter flavor. This is from thymol, a plant-based active essential oil that possesses antimicrobial activity and is found in ajwain, thyme, wildflowers, and other natural sources. Thymol is used in many natural disinfectants, toothpaste, and in mouthwash for its ability to fight tooth decay and bad breath. When thymol is extracted from a plant, it looks like a white, crystalline substance. You do want to be careful if you are pregnant or nursing. Other than that, this is a fantastic ingredient to get into your weekly meal rotation, especially when you know how to use it. But consult with a physician to learn more.
In Indian cuisine every spice we use has a purpose and some medicinal quality. Ajwain is particularly personal because on all of my trips to India as a little girl it was the family joke that they would always prepare for my trip with a jar of this spice. You see, I am obsessed with street food. And no matter how much my family told me to stay away from it, I would sneak out of the house with my cousins (I have over fifty and we were all quite naughty as children) to find a street vendor to gobble down forbidden snacks. But, it would never suit my Americanized belly. The first thing I was given any time that happened was a pinch of ajwain, which I now know worked because of its active enzymes. They improve the flow of stomach acids that help to relieve indigestion, bloating, and gas. To this day, I have a jar of it sitting by my bed whenever I feel gassy or get a stomach ache from overeating. You see the theme here, right? Yes, I love to eat!
You may also see ajwain referred to as ajwan, ajowan, bishops weed, omam (in Tamil), thymol seeds, and ajowan caraway. Ajwain is actually an annual herb in the Apiaceae family (the same family as celery, parsley, carrots, caraway, coriander, fennel, and parsnips) that produces small, seed-like fruits similar to caraway and cumin. The fruit is small, beige, and slightly ridged with a tiny, wispy stalk attached. It looks like a seed, but again it's technically a fruit. The plant itself is a small, feathery bush that grows best in sandy and well-drained soil. It can grow in drought conditions and is cultivated in dry and barren areas. Indigenous to Egypt it is also grown in South and West Asia, Iran, and India where it is cultivated in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The taste is sharp and slightly bitter. I like to say a combination of thyme, oregano, and anise. Because the flavor is strong, we use it sparingly in our dishes. We use it in various chickpea flour dishes including pakoras, in samosas, and in breads like parantha. If you are really familiar with Indian cuisine and have had our savory Indian biscuit called a matti, we use it in that as well. It is also often used in dal mixed with rice called kitchari, which makes sense because that's what we eat when we have an upset stomach.
If you want to give this amazing spice a try, we'd be happy to include a sample with any purchase of $25 or more from our website. Just go to 'Shop Now,' to place your order for cookbooks, spices, sauces, and more, and then email me directly to send you a sample along with your purchase. My personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If we see interest in it, we may just include it in our spice offering.
Remember, when you have questions about your own health or when trying something new, talk with your physician first.
Some references for more on spices:
Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal with Debora Yost
The Indian Grocery Store Demystified by Linda Bladholm
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