When I walk down the aisles of our local Indian market, it’s the rows of herbs and spices that I bathe in, taking in a long deep smell as I eye the overstocked shelves, while visions of new recipes dance through my head.
Other worldly folk are there too, expanding their palettes or planning to expand others’. Because the packages are labeled for a Middle East market in the Middle East, at times it can feel like an Easter egg hunt. It’s not long before we are all helping to find what everyone else is looking for. Sight and smell are our only devices. Like dogs at the airport, we’re sniffing bags.
I’m out of Thyme. It’s an herb I’ve known since birth. Dried, fresh, simmered in a sauce… I can pick it out with my eyes closed. Except here, where subtle similarities and subtle differences require a sommelier. Eventually, I inquire and a helpful person steps out from behind the counter and, while they don’t carry thyme, she points to something I might like to try – ajwain.
It’s not an herb that I have listed on my internal substitution chart. So, I quickly check Wikipedia, and there it is… “Smells like thyme.” Well, sort of. O.k. But if i tried to pass it off as such to my neighbor Luigi (real name, real italian), he would probably look at me and ask, “do you really think I’m that gullible?”
Ajwain. A.k.a. “Bishops Weed.” It’s a pod, not a leaf, and its rich, musty and somewhat pungent essential oil can easily dominate a dish. I lightly toasted some in a pan until it wafted uncontrollably through my kitchen, then into the mortar and pestle for a little fine tuning – in this case, coarsely cracked. Now, what to put it on?
Native to and used extensively throughout the Middle East, ajwain may be a staple spice in many indian foods, but that is outdone by its array of Ayurvedic uses.
As a spice, it does slightly resemble thyme in smell, and to the tongue a somewhat pungent bitterness can sweep quickly across the buds if not used sparingly. In my trials, I found it quite appetizing on roasted root vegetables and squash. Curiously earthy, there are other hints of flavors that echo…cumin and caraway, but I recommend to just enjoy and not over analyze.
Tomorrow, I’m going to fine tune it again into a fine powder and use it as I would Zaatar – brushed with olive oil on breads and sprinkled on eggs, perhaps with a bit of sumac. I’ve always wanted to try making flatbread and this particular recipe that uses ajwain will get me started http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/ajwain_parathas_37143.
The medical and Ayurvedic uses of ajwain are well documented, and it has been used to treat disorders such as psoriasis, asthma, kidney stones and digestive orders. (http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-292-BISHOP’S%20WEED.aspx?activeIngredientId=292&activeIngredientName=BISHOP’S%20WEED).
For ingestion, ajwain is typically prepared as a tea, with water or even milk used as a base, or crushed and wrapped in a porous cloth and its aromas inhaled.(http://www.allayurveda.com/herb_month_january2012.asp). Topical applications vary, crushed and mixed with other oils, or it’s own oils extracted and then applied.
Banana, Date, & Cardamom Smoothie
1 cup plain nonfat or lowfat yogurt
1/3 cup nonfat or lowfat milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 medium-size ripe banana, peeled, sliced, and FROZEN
2 dates, chopped
Optional: pinch of cardamom
1. Combine the yogurt, milk, vanilla, banana, dates, and (optional) cardamom in a blender.
2. Blend until smooth.
3. Pour into a large glass. Yum.