A tiny, tear-shaped spice seed that grows on a plant Carum ajowan closely related to parsley. Ajwain has a very pungent flavour reminiscent of thyme, with warming peppery overtones. The spice is variously referred to as ajowan, bishop's weed and carum seed.
The plant is native to India where it has been cultivated for centuries for both culinary and medicinal uses. The thyme flavour found in ajwain comes from high levels of thymol, a strong menthol tasting volatile oil. In the early Twentieth Century, the world's main source of thymol was ajwain seeds, and its germicide and antiseptic properties are utilized in many cough syrups and throat lozenges. Ajwain seeds are reputed to be beneficial to asthma sufferers, with the small seeds smoked in a pipe to relieve shortness of breath. A folk remedy for impotence has ajwain seeds soaked in lemon juice then dried 7 times over. The consumption of the treated seeds is said to stimulate flagging libidos.
In the kitchen, ajwain seeds are almost exclusively used in Indian cuisine. They are mainly found in pulse dishes such as dhal, as well as vegetable dishes and pickles. The sharp flavour of ajwain has the ability to cut through rich flavours and densely spiced foods.
Due to ajwain seeds' tiny size and chewable texture, they are almost always sold and consumed whole. When using the spice it pays to be sparing as their pungent flavour can easily overwhelm a dish.