For over 3,000 years, throughout the traditional areas touched by the Silk Road connecting China, India, Persia and Mediterranean countries, oils derived from black cumin seed have been used in cooking both as a spice, a condiment and as a home remedy to aid in digestion. But scientists are only starting to discover how numerous the benefits of these oils may be.
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It is thought that oils made from black cumin seed were first used by the Assyrians and ancient Egyptians. We know through records that the plant nigella sativa from which black cumin seed is obtained was grown in desert oases. The physicians who served ancient pharaohs prescribed oils and other edible compounds made from the seeds to aid in digestion, particularly after large feasts. One famous queen renowned for her beauty, Queen Nefretiti, anointed her skin with oils made from black cumin seed. A bottle of black cumin oil was found in the tomb of one of her husband's sons, King Tutankhamen.
The Trade Routes
As trade expanded through ancient Greece and eventually Rome, the benefits of black cumin seed, and the oils derived from it, became known in those centres of trade as well. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder is recorded as having made a poultice from the seeds to treat snake bites and scorpion stings. The seeds were known to repel bugs and were put in early insecticides. Meanwhile, as Islam rose to prominence in the Middle East, the Islamic physicians prescribed medicines made from black cumin seeds for everything from indigestion to upper respiratory problems.
The use of black cumin seeds and the oils derived from it were eventually carried into India, where both its medicinal properties and its use in cooking were immediately adopted for roasting lamb, vegetables and chutney. The oils were known to carry a variety of medicinal purposes, in addition to promoting digestion, soothing earaches, calming postnatal cramps and increasing lactation in nursing women.
Motivated by the many health claims and home remedies that involve black cumin seeds and oils over many different cultures, scientists have begun studying the seeds in the past 50 years. While the oils were initially dismissed because of the cure-all claims attached to them, studies have shown that the claims may not be as inflated as initially believed. The seeds were discovered to have over 100 different chemical constituents, including essential oils, fatty acids, proteins and alkaloids. The seeds were found to decrease blood pressure and increase respiration. They also contained analgesic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic and antineoplastic properties.
The push for preventive medicine isn't the only reason behind the growth of interest in black cumin seed oil. According to Specialty Food Magazine, the trend is partially fuelled by a growing interest in Mediterranean spices and cooking. As a result, black cumin oil is becoming more prominent in American markets as a spice and a cooking oil, as well as a health supplement.
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