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Nigella sativa grows to 20–30 cm (7.9–11.8 in) tall, with finely divided, linear (but not thread-like) leaves. The flowers are delicate, and usually colored pale blue and white, with five to ten petals.
The black caraway fruit is a large and inflated capsule composed of three to seven united follicles, each containing numerous seeds which are used as spice, sometimes as a replacement for black cumin (Bunium bulbocastanum).
The seeds of Nigella sativa are used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The black seeds taste like a combination of onions, black pepper and oregano. They have a pungent bitter taste and smell.
The dry-roasted nigella seeds flavor curries, vegetables and pulses. It can be used as a "pepper" in recipes with pod fruit, vegetables, salads and poultry. In some cultures, the black seeds are used to flavor bread products. It is also used as part of the spice mixture panch phoron (meaning a mixture of five spices) and by itself in many recipes in Bengali cuisine and most recognizably in naan bread. Nigella is also used in Armenian string cheese, a braided string cheese called majdouleh or majdouli in the Middle East.
According to Zohary and Hopf, archaeological evidence about the earliest cultivation of N. sativa "is still scanty", but they report supposed N. sativa seeds have been found in several sites from ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamun's tomb. Although its exact role in Egyptian culture is unknown, it is known that items entombed with a pharaoh were carefully selected to assist him in the afterlife.
The earliest written reference to N. sativa is thought to be in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, where the reaping of nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27). Easton's Bible dictionary states the Hebrew word ketsah refers to N. sativa without doubt (although not all translations are in agreement). According to Zohary and Hopf, N. sativa was another traditional condiment of the Old World during classical times, and its black seeds were extensively used to flavor food.
Preliminary human research
Mainly for its seed oil extract, thymoquinone, N. sativa is under research for its potential to affect human diseases, such as cancer or medical conditions such as dyspepsia, although studies to date remain insufficient to understand its potential for clinical efficacy.
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