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Edible Plants: Caraway; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Caraway (carum carvi) is a flavorful and aromatic herb used in the culinary and medicinal traditions of Europe since the Stone Age. This edible plant is also highly nutritious.

Caraway (Carum carvi) is an aromatic edible plant from the Umbelliferae botanical family, also known as Apiaceae. Caraway is generally regarded as an herb, however its seeds, which look similar to cumin, are considered to be a spice. The caraway plant is usually biennial but is sometimes grown as an annual. All of the caraway plant is edible, including its leaves, seeds and roots. Caraway has a spicy and fragrant flavor, not as intense as cumin but stronger than dill or coriander. This plant is also highly nutritious, being a source of antioxidants from flavonoids and vitamins. It is also a source of minerals.

Caraway is one of oldest spices known to have been used in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Archeologists have dated the use of caraway in Europe to the Stone Age and it has also been found in Egyptian tombs. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides was known to have made a tonic which could restore color to the cheeks of ladies with pale complexions. And the Emperor Julius Caesar’s favorite bread was apparently a bread made with caraway seeds, known as chara. Caraway is one of the four herbs and spices including anise, coriander and fennel, favored as botanic medicines, known as pharmacopeia, in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia and Greece.

The use of caraway in England goes back to the 14th century when it was first included in a cook book complied for King Richard II. By Elizabethan times caraway was often eaten at the end of the meal to cleanse the palate and freshen the breath. William Shakespeare helped popularize this trend when a scene from Henry IV, part II, included an invitation to Falstaff to; “partake of a pippin….with a dish of caraway.” Apples were served as dessert along with caraway in Shakespeare's time.

Caraway is particularly popular in German culture where it is an essential ingredient in sauerkraut and some delicatessen meats. In German folklore sprinkling caraway seeds on a loved ones coffin helps prevent the casting of evil spells and keeps away demons.

The Culinary Uses of Caraway: Caraway leaves have a mild aniseed flavor and are used to flavor soups and stews. Simmering the leaves allows for the slow release of their flavors. Caraway roots can also be cooked and served like vegetables. Caraway seeds are used for baked goods such as rye breads, biscuits and can also be used as a substitute for poppy seeds. They are also used to garnish and flavor cheeses, such as Livarot and Munster. Other popular uses include to flavor salad dressings, and apple sauce. Caraway essential oil is a flavoring for the alcoholic beverages aquavit and schnapes.

In Indian cuisine caraway seeds are used to flavor curries, lentil dishes such as dal, and they are also added to the rice dish biriyani. In the cuisines of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, caraway seeds are a traditional flavoring for Mechoui, a North African version of spit roasted lamb.

To get the best results from caraway seeds purchase them whole rather than ground as they will keep their flavor for longer. Sautéing caraway seed in a little oil before adding them to recipes brings out their fragrant aroma and subtle flavor. They should also be crushed before adding them to roasted meats or marinades.

The Nutritional Value of Caraway: Caraway seeds are an excellent source of the minerals potassium and calcium. Also phosphorus, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Caraway is also high in fiber and contains the vitamin’s C, A, E and B complex. Caraway seeds contain phytochemicals which are powerful antioxidants. The most prevalent of which are the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. Both help neutralize and remove harmful free radicals from the body. They also help prevent degenerative diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, and assist in repairing DNA. Carotenoids are types of terpenes as is limonene, also found in caraway. Limonene, which is most abundant in citrus peel, acts as a detoxifier, helping to assists enzymes in the liver. One of the enzymes known as glutathione is particularly effective in flushing toxins out of the liver and also helping to prevent liver and gallbladder disease.

Aquavit or Akvavit is a Scandinavian spirit flavored with caraway. Image credit; fotopedia.com. Primary image, Carum carvi or caraway seeds. Image labeled for reuse, Image credit, opencage,info.



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