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You may have run across ajwain seeds in recipes from noted Indian cooks like Madhur Jaffrey. These savory seeds provide essential flavor to many Indian dishes, in particular the vegetarian cuisine of Uttar Pradesh, although they are believed to have originated in Egypt.

Pronounced AHJ-a-wahn, and also referred to as bishop’s weed and or carom seeds, this spice looks a bit like caraway or cumin. Its taste can be described as a bit like thyme, but kickier, more pungent and less floral than the European herb.

Ajwain seeds grow extensively in India, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, where they are featured in savory recipes including breads and biscuits. They also add unique flavors to vegetable dishes.

When cooking with whole ajwain, the seeds are first crushed and then added at the final stage of preparation. This is because prolonged cooking results in evaporation of ajwain’s essential oils.

Ajwain is used sparingly, whether on its own or with other spices, in a method called tadka (tempering) in which the oil is heated until very hot and the spices are added to release the aromatic flavors. The infused oil is then used to finish the recipe.

You will find ajwain in many Indian vegetable dishes, such as legumes — particularly lentils — and in curries with chicken and fish. In the Middle East, ajwain’s distinctive taste is used to elevate the flavor of rice and meat dishes, and serves as a flavoring and preserving agent for pickles, chutneys, and jams.

In addition to its many culinary applications, ajwain is rich in fiber and antioxidants. It is widely used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for both indigestion and toothaches.

Ajwain seeds are sold whole and dried, ready to be ground and mixed with other spices or simply used whole in breads, desserts and savory dishes like this colorful omelette. The recipe works fine with regular broccoli, but my boys and I love it with twirly green romanesco. For freshest flavor, look for heads of romanesco that are firm, with a few crisp leaves still attached to the stem.

Romanesco Omelette with Ajwain

Serves 1-2.

1/4 cup water

1/4 head of romanesco, cut into florets

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1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/3 tsp. whole ajwain seeds

Salt to taste

2 eggs

2 tsp. balsamic vinegar

In a nonstick skillet, add water and bring to boil. Add romanesco florets, cover and cook until the water evaporates. Turn romanesco florets and add olive oil to the pan.

Beat eggs. Add ajwain seeds to the oil for a few seconds and then add eggs. Cover and cook on low heat until eggs are cooked on top, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Shuli Madmone owns Whole Spice at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa. Do you have a question about herbs, spices, cooking or food, or a recipe you’re looking for — vegetarian, vegan or otherwise? Drop him a note at wholespicenapa@gmail.com.

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