A warm, slightly anise flavoured spice, which is used in cuisines around the world in such diverse applications as cheeses, spice and curry blends, breads and slow cooked meat and vegetable dishes.
Anatomy and origins
Caraway is a small biennial plant Carum carvi that grows to a height of 60 cm, bearing slender frond-like, light green foliage and white, canopy shaped flowers. The spice caraway comes from the seed, which is actually botanically correct to call a fruit. Caraway "seeds" bear a strong physical resemblance to cumin seeds. They are around 5 mm in length and dark brown in colour, with 5 pale ribs running the length of the seed.
The plant is native to Central Asia and Northern Africa. Remains of caraway have been dated back to the Mesolithic era, around 3000 BC making it one of the oldest known spices. Indeed it is said the ancient Egyptians buried their dead with caraway.
There are 2 schools of thought regarding the origins of the word caraway. One theory has it that the Arabian word karawya is responsible, yet Pliny postulates that the name is derived from an ancient region in Asia Minor, Caria.
Caraway seeds have a forthright and distinctive flavour that includes elements of fennel seeds and anise, along with the citrus peel overtones found in coriander seeds.
The region caraway is used in will determine its culinary application. In Europe the spice flavours numerous cheeses, as well as rich meat dishes such as sausages and pork, providing evidence of caraways ability to cut through fatty flavours. It is also a common ingredient in rye breads and partners slow cooked vegetable dishes, such as cabbage and potatoes quite well.
In North Africa caraway is an essential ingredient in the fiery spice paste, harissa, while in India many garam masala spice blends contain caraway.
Scandinavian cooks have always had an identification problem with caraway. In Sweden the word for this lovely spice is kummin, while in Finland the word kumina refers to both caraway and cumin.*
The largest producer of caraway is Holland and it is said that is also of the finest quality. Where possible, buy your caraway from a reputable spice dealer and insist on Dutch caraway.
* Thanks go to gn0sis for the Nordic enlightenment