Spolight on: caraway (كراويا, karāwayā)

This biennial plant (Carum carvi) is native to Western Asia and the Mediterranean — in fact, it may well be the oldest spice plant to be cultivated in Europe. It was already used in classical Antiquity; Dioscorides likened it to anise seed and said that it promotes digestion, while the root can boiled and eaten just like carrot. It became very popular in Roman times and is required in a number of recipes in Apicius’ cookery book (4th c.)

Its Arabic name also sometimes occurs as karwiyā, whereas in English its other names include meridian fennel and Persian cumin. The wild variety was known in Arabic as qardamāna (قردمانة) or qardamānā (قردمانا).

In medieval Arab cooking, caraway seeds (the dried fruit of the plant) were frequently used — often toasted and ground — in a variety of dishes, condiments, and sauces. The anonymous author of a 13th-century Andalusian treatise recommended it for dishes with cabbage and spinach, or tharīds (vegetables and meat in a broth with bread), since it improves their taste and dispels wind caused by the vegetables. However, caraway (and coriander) should never be used in ṭafāyās (stews).

Medicinally, it was considered an effective anti-emetic, anthelmintic, digestive, diuretic, as well as being useful against hiccups and palpitations. It is better for the stomach than cumin, while the best variety is the cultivated one. Ibn Jazla (11th c.) stated that it can be harmful to the lungs, which is remedied with wild thyme. According to al-Samarqandī (13th c.), caraway is constipating, and Ibn Khalṣūn (13th c.) said it was harmful to the stomach and reduces appetite, and recommended eating it with cinnamon.

Today, caraway is mostly used to flavour sweet dishes and bakery goods, especially certain types of bread. It is also an ingredient in the Tunisian chilli paste harisa (هريسة).

caraway in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.), Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

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