Indian Culinary Herbs You Can Grow

New faces for your kitchen and garden


| February/March 1993


The spice blends that lend Indian cuisine its infinitely varied yet instantly ­recognizable flavors are complex and ­mysterious. Although some of the char­ac­eristic herbs and spices are familiar—coriander, cinnamon, and pepper, to name a few—many are rarely seen in Western cooking. Yet many of the plants from which the more unexpected flavors ­derive can be grown in this country, ­either as house plants or outdoors.

Most of the plants discussed below are native to the tropics; gardeners in Zone 10 whose sage and tarragon have given up the ghost can enjoy the satisfaction of growing these more exotic herbs outdoors, in the ground, all year round. Those who live in colder regions will need to provide special care for the tender species, but even someone with no garden at all and a black thumb to boot can coax a grocery-store ginger rhizome to survive—maybe even grow—in a pot of sand on the windowsill.

Nigella

This species resembles love-in-a-mist (N. damascena), an annual garden plant often grown in this country for its cheerful blue, pink, or white flowers, threadlike leaves, and decorative seedpods. N. sativa also has finely ­divided leaves (thus the name fennel flower) but is less showy in bloom; ­native to the Mediterranean region, it is cultivated in India for its pungent, angular black seeds, which have given rise to many of the herb’s names, both in India and elsewhere. Kalonji means “black onion seeds”, the generic name Nigella means “blackish” (sativa means “cultivated”), and the name nutmeg flower refers to the seeds’ spicy fragrance. The seeds taste somewhat like poppyseeds with a hint of pepper, celery, and oregano. Nigella seeds are found in many Indian spice blends (see "Beyond Curry Powder"); in naan, a leavened flat bread of northern India; and in pickles, vegetables, and fish dishes. They are usually toasted to bring out their flavor before grinding or adding whole to the other ingredients.

The seeds have numerous nonculinary uses in India including repelling insects from stored clothing, stimulating the secretion of mothers’ milk, and aiding digestion. In Europe, the heated ground seeds were once thought to restore the sense of smell.

Nigella will grow in zones 3 through 10. It does best in full sun and well-drained garden soil. Plants started indoors and transplanted to the garden are not as sturdy as direct-seeded plants; therefore, sow the seeds in the ground in fall or spring, barely covering with fine soil. Seeds germinate most readily at 65–70°F. Thin young plants to stand about a foot apart. Mature plants grow 12 to 15 inches tall. Single white flowers tinged with blue begin to appear in summer and continue into late fall. Harvest the paper-thin, urn-shaped pods when they turn brown, and dry them in the shade. Break them open to release the seeds and dry the seeds for a few days before storing. You will need quite a few plants to obtain a jar of seeds. Leave a few of the fruits on the plants if you wish to take advantage of nigella’s tendency to self-seed.

Fenugreek

Fenugreek, native to southern Europe and Asia, is a legume that resembles ­alfalfa, and it has been used as cattle fodder since ancient times. The name fenugreek and its Latin equivalent, foenum-graecum, both mean “Greek hay”. (Trigonella means “little triangle”, but which one is unclear; some sources think it refers to the shape of the flower.) The herb is cultivated in India primarily for its hard little ocher seeds, which are used in many spice blends and pickles; their nose-twisting aroma contributes to the characteristic smell of American curry powder. Indians also use fenugreek seeds with eggplant, meat, and potatoes, and they cook the aromatic, bitter leaves as a potherb. Though a maple taste is only barely detectable in the seeds, the food industry uses the ground seeds and ­essential oil in imitation maple flavorings. As a medicinal, the seeds have long been used in tonics for horses and cattle as well as to treat diabetes, digestive problems, and other dis­orders in humans.





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