The Sabaya Company’s “pockets” are dotted with nigella seeds. Credit: The Sabaya Company/Instagram

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What do India, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, Yemen, Poland, Germany, Romania and the East Bay have in common? Cooks from those places (among others) all use nigella seeds – little, black-colored, triangular-shaped aromatic seeds – as a seasoning for foods and pastries. It’s a seed that’s used in several dishes in East Bay restaurants, and is a standby for many home cooks, as well. Recently, a Nosh reader asked us about the seed and if it was sold locally. The short answer is yes, but there’s plenty more to learn if you read on.

While sources differ on the native origins of the nigella sativa plant, most agree that the plant can be found growing in the wild and cultivated mostly in India, northern African and Middle Eastern countries. With a bitter, herbaceous flavor, a peppery impact on the tongue, and a crunch when you bite into them, nigella, also known as black seed, kalonji, charnushka, tikur azmud, and, erroneously, as black cumin seed, is frequently used, much like poppyseeds or sesame seeds, for flavor and texture in or on breads and pastries. 

(If you want to geek out a little, check out Lior Lev Sercarz’s book, The Spice Companion and the Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World, by Padma Lakshmi with Judith Sutton and Kalyustan’s Spice Shop.)

Reem’s California, the lauded restaurant that got its start in Oakland’s Fruitvale, features a cheese and nigella-filled pastry called fatayer. (The recipe for fatayer is also featured in founder Reem Assil’s new cookbook, Arabiyya.) Piedmont’s Sabaya Company uses black seed in its popular namesake product, a flaky, multi-layer, brown-buttery pastry, drizzled with golden honey. The seed is frequently sprinkled on flatbreads like naan and raised breads like European rye and also serves as a base note to South Asian and African stews. 

Where to find nigella seeds

Aderaw Yeshiwas of Brundo Spice Company, which specializes in spices sourced from small farmers in Ethiopia, said the nigella seed is one of their top five products. Yeshiwas, a self-identified “spice guy” said that the original plan for Brundo — a spinoff of 31-year-old Ethiopian restaurant Cafe Colucci — was to serve other Ethiopian restaurants and business owners, importing spices that might be hard to find on the wholesale end otherwise.

Now that business is picking up at Cafe Colucci, though, he says the focus for the overall business is a bit of a balance between the restaurant, founded by his aunt three decades ago, and the spice company. “A large part of our spice sales in and around the restaurant are people visiting who come into the restaurant when they happen to be in the area and then they take away a bunch of spices with them.” And more often than not, some of those spices are nigella seeds.

Yeshiwas said that Ethiopian elders “always tell stories about the health components of eating” nigella seeds, and you’ll find claims of medicinal and healing properties across many cultures. Many believe that the seeds have “health benefits, so people make it into an oil, either to ingest or some for epidermis use,” Yeshiwas said. But more often, the nigella seed (tikur azmud in Amharic) is “used for cooking food, baking.”

According to Yeshiwas, the East African nigella that Brundo carries is unique because it is “really, really pungent.” According to Yeshiwas, the regions where Brundo’s farmers grow tikur azmud have a high altitude, and this affects the flavor.

That high-flying piquancy makes nigellas work well in the kind of cooking they do at Cafe Colucci, where its cooks take hand-harvested seeds that are ground at Brundo and mix them into a proprietary Makaluya spice blend, traditionally used to thicken wot stews. The seeds “support the Ethiopian taste palate well,” Yeshiwas said. “It complements sour, spicy, and sweet foods, like our spiced coffees, honey wines, and injera.”