The Kalonji, Nigella, Black Cumin, Black Sesame, Love-in-a-Mist & Onion Seeds Mystery

Neeru Salwan writes:

“I am a vegetarian and do not eat onion and garlic. Is kalonji considered as onion seeds? Can we eat nigella seeds?

My reply:

Hello Neeru! You are not alone in your confusion.

Kalonji seeds, also correctly named Nigella seeds (Nigella sativa) (pictured below) are not seeds of the onion plant. There is no connection. It is a colloquial term only, because they look like onion seeds.

They are also sometimes called black cumin, but this is also a mistake. Black cumin (Cuminum nigrum) {it is also sometimes ascribed to Bunium persicum}, is a totally different seed. It is even sometimes called black sesame, which is also a totally different plant, although their seeds are quite similar.


Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant, native to southwest Asia. It grows to 20-30 cm tall, with finely divided, linear leaves. The flowers are delicate, and usually coloured pale blue and white, with 5-10 petals. The fruit is a large and inflated capsule composed of 3-7 united follicles, each containing numerous seeds. The seed is used as a spice.Nigella sativa seed is known variously as kalonji (Hindi), kezah (Hebrew), habbah elbarakah (literally seeds of blessing, Arabic) or siyah daneh (Persian).

In English it is called fennel flower, black caraway, nutmeg flower or Roman coriander. It is related to, looks like, and sometimes mistaken for the beautiful flowering plant Love-in-a-Mist. It is also sometimes just referred to as nigella or black seed. It was even used in very old English cookery, and called gith.

This potpourri of vernacular names for this plant reflects that its widespread use as a spice is relatively new in the English speaking world, and largely associated with immigrants from areas where it is well known. Increasing use is likely to result in one of the names winning out, hopefully one which is unambiguous.

Old Islamic medicine favours kalonji seeds mixed with honey for insomnia, sexual debility, dyslipidemia and many other diseases. It is said “Salim Bin Abdullah narrates with reference to his father Hazrat Abdullah Bin Omar that Rasool Allah (Pbuh) said, ‘Let fall these black seeds upon you, these contain cure for all diseases, except death.'”

These tiny, tear-drop shaped seeds are dusty jet black in colour with an earthy slightly pungent, slightly bitter pleasant flavour. Kaloniji are extensively used in Indian cooking, particularly in pickles.


They are also sprinkled over soft Tandoor-baked breads such as Naan, as is done in Northern India, and also on Turkish Pide breads (pictured, above). In India’s medical tradition, Ayurveda, kalonji seeds are recommended for cleansing of toxins in the blood, helping to stimulate the liver, and used as a paste to clear skin blemishes.

In western herbal medicine, Nigella sativa is described as having hypertensive, carminative, and anthelminthic properties.

Nigella is also used in Bengali Panch Porum (5-spice). I love using it in the batter for pakoras, assorted vegies dipped in spiced chickpea flour batter and fried to crispy magnificence. Yum!!

Posted by Kurma on 12/4/07; 8:39:58 AM

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