No, not the celebrity chef with the big heart and not birdseed either, but a great spice that no kitchen should be without.
Nigella seed capsules
Probably Western Asia.
Although nigella is not mentioned in common Bible translations, there is good evidence that an obscure plant mentioned in the Old Testament was nigella and this would indicate that it was cultivated for over two millennia. Today the plant is cultivated widely, from Egypt to India.
The deep black sharp-cornered seed grains.
Ranunculaceae (buttercup family).
Nigella seeds have little odour when whole but when ground or chewed they develop an oregano-like scent. The taste is aromatic and slightly bitter but not pungent, although there is some pungency in unripe and undried seeds.
There is much confusion about the names of this spice which is referred to by a multitude of names which might mean something else entirely. In some English sources it is incorrectly called "black cumin" or "black caraway" (as used in Jewish rye breads) and the seed known as "black sesame seed" or "black onion seed". There is no botanical relation between nigella and any of these plants. In the US, nigella is often known as charnushka (deriving from the Russian name chernushka, probably introduced into American English by Armenian emigrants). The Hindi term kalonji is widely used by Indians even when speaking English. There are several species besides n. sativa; the next most important species being n. damascena, a common ornamental in Europe. Not all members of the genus have a culinary application. The seeds of n. damascena have some flavour but are inferior to those of n. sativa.
Nearly all names of nigella contain an element meaning "black" in reference to the unusually dark colour of the seeds (genus nigella from Latin nigellus "blackish" or "dark"). Species name sativa is the feminine form of sativus, Latin for "sown" or "cultivated".
With the growing popularity of nigella seed oil as a natural remedy, new names for the spice have been devised that are easier to remember and do not sound foreign. In English, it is often simply called "black seeds". In Finnish it is called musta siemen, in Italian grani neri "black grains" and in Chinese hei zhong cao "black plant seeds". The term "onion seed" (as in German zwiebelsame or Finnish sipulinsiemen) refers to nigella's similarity with the seed of onion plants. The latter, however, are tasteless and cannot be used as a spice.
The ancient English name gith can be traced back to a black-seeded herb mentioned by Plinius who rendered the name as gith or git, probably loaned from a Semitic tongue. This name for nigella was used by Charlemagne in his Capitulare de Villis. In modern English, "gith" is more often used for corn cockle agrostemma githago, also distinguished by black seeds but containing toxic saponines.
Ornamental breeds of the closely related species n. damascena are known in English as "devil in the bush" or "love in a mist" and in German asjungfer im grünen "maiden in the green" or gretchen im busch "maggie in the bush".
Nigella is mentioned in the bible and today is well known in Western, Central and Southern Asia, with its main application area being Turkey, Lebanon and Iran. Turkish bread frequently shows the characteristically shaped black grains.
From Iran, nigella usage spread to North India, particularly Punjab and Bengal. The spice is mostly used for vegetable dishes (especially aubergines and pumpkin) of which there are many varieties in Bengal. As with many other Indian spices, nigella develops its flavour best after short toasting in a hot dry pan or after short frying in a little oil.
In West Bengal, Sikkim and Bangladesh, the spice mixture panch phoron is very popular, used both for meats and vegetables. The normal composition is whole nigella, fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seeds and fennel. Panch phoron lends a subtle and harmonic flavour to the foods and is always fried in oil before use.