When Alice of Wonderland fell down the rabbit hole, she didn’t have a toothbrush with her—but she did have a box of comfits in her pocket. These little cakes coated in caraway seeds were a popular confection in Victorian England, when caraway seeds were highly regarded for keeping the breath fresh and the digestive system running smoothly.
Rural Victorians celebrated a successful spring sowing of wheat with ale and wiggs, another caraway cake. The superstitious among the Victorians believed that anything caraway touched couldn’t be stolen, and women put caraway seeds in their husbands’ pockets in the belief that it would keep them from straying. The spice was also bottled as a love potion and became known as “kissing caraway.”
But caraway’s popularity among the English went the way of chimney sweeps and “pantalettes” for covering piano legs. Perhaps it’s time for a revival of the spice—in the UK and the US, where post-meal tummy troubles such as burning, bloating, belching, cramping, and nausea plague an estimated 40 percent of the population. New scientific studies show what Alice and her contemporaries on this side of the looking glass knew from firsthand experience: caraway is one of the most powerful digestive aids around.
Better than Antacids
Researchers in the UK reviewed 53 studies on antacids and found they provided “little relief” for digestive woes. Then they looked at 17 studies on herbal remedies, including a combination of peppermint and caraway oil, both of which con tain carvone, a component of some essential oils that relaxes spasms in the digestive tract. The herbal combo effectively reduced stomachache and other post-meal problems anywhere from 60 to 95 percent of the time. In one study, people who used the combo for four weeks had an average 45 percent reduction in gastrointestinal pain.
A Folk Remedy for Diabetes
The English aren’t the only traditional fans of caraway. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians considered the spice both food and medicine, baking it into bread, cakes, and fruit dishes to stimulate digestion and fight colds and bronchitis.
Caraway continues to be a popular folk remedy in Morocco, where many of the populace chews on lightly roasted seeds after dinner. It’s also considered a way to prevent and control blood sugar problems. In fact, in 2004, Moroccan researchers tested the remedy on rats with drug-induced diabetes—and found that the daily administration of the remedy for two weeks completely normalized the ailing animals’ blood sugar levels. The finding “represents an experimental confirmation of the Moroccan traditional use” of caraway seeds for the control of type 2 diabetes, said the researchers in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Way More to Caraway
In fact, caraway seeds contain more than 50 healing compounds, which studies show can fight all kinds of health problems. Those include:
Cancer. Caraway seeds are loaded with limonene, a compound with known anti-cancer activity. Animal studies show that limonene can stop the growth of breast, liver, lung, and stomach cancer. Some animal studies show that limonene and carvone combined reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Food poisoning.E. coli is the germ behind most cases of food poisoning, an infection that strikes 76 million Americans a year. (That’s 21,000 per day.) Chicken is a favorite hangout of E. coli—but researchers who contaminated a pot of chicken soup with the bacteria found that carvone prevented it from multiplying.
Cholesterol and triglycerides. Moroccan researchers found caraway reduced levels of these two blood fats in both normal and diabetic laboratory animals. The spice has “potent lipid [fat] lowering activity,” the researchers concluded.
Constipation. In Bulgaria, doctors treated 32 people with chronic constipation with a laxative containing caraway—and 29 of them started having regular daily bowel movements.
Tuberculosis. In India, where tuberculosis is the leading cause of death from infectious disease, researchers found that dietary caraway enhanced the absorption of three anti-tuberculosis drugs.
Getting to Know Caraway
Unlike most healing spices, caraway thrives in a moderate (rather than tropical) climate, and is grown in many parts of the world, including Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and the United States. Americans haven’t adopted a fondness for caraway in the same way as other nations, however. We’re most familiar with caraway as the seed on the crust of German and Jewish rye breads.
Real caraway country is in Europe. The intense anise-like flavor is particularly characteristic of German cuisine, where chefs discovered it balances the starches and fats in the traditional meat-and-potato diet. Germans put it in all kinds of dishes—soups, meat stews, sausages, potato casseroles, and cakes. It’s always added to sauerkraut and boiled cabbage, to banish the lingering sulfuric odor—and flatulence—that cooked cabbage leaves behind. And it’s used to flavor the German liquors kummel (a word for caraway) and schnapps.
Caraway also defines the flavor of aquavit, Scandinavia’s national liquor. It gives a savory sweetness to Hungarian goulash. In Russia, it’s put in borscht. In France, it’s used as a preservative in choucroute.
Unlike most spices, caraway thrives in a moderate (rather than tropical) climate, and grows in many parts of the world.
Lightly roasted caraway seeds often accompany a cheese plate in central Europe: people in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France eat caraway with Muenster cheese; the Dutch eat it with Tilsiter cheese; and in Hungary it’s served with Liptauer cheese along with mustard, butter, and chopped chives.
Caraway is a key ingredient in Tunisia’s famous fiery harissa, one of the hottest condiments on earth. In Nigeria, it’s the spice on the sweet deep-fried wafer chin-chin. In India, caraway is often found in snacks.
How to Buy Caraway
There are two types of caraway: one is from an annual plant native to Europe, the other is from a biennial native to the Middle East. Caraway connoisseurs say the best is grown in Holland.
But none of these facts are particularly relevant unless you buy your spices at a specialty shop.
The most important fact: always buy caraway seeds whole. Grinding releases the spice’s volatile oils, dissipating the flavor. When stored in an airtight container in a cool place and out of the sunlight, the whole seeds will keep for two years or longer.
Caraway may help prevent and/or treat:
Cholesterol problems (high total cholesterol)
Diabetes, type 2
(gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD)
Caraway pairs well with these spices:
and complements recipes featuring:
Other recipes containing caraway:
Alsatian Pork and Sauerkraut
Raw caraway will have a slight aroma, but the full flavor doesn’t come out until the seed is cooked.
In the Kitchen with Caraway
The taste of caraway (which some feel is an acquired taste) is earthy, similar to fennel and anise, with a nutty aftertaste. Even if you buy ground seeds, you will get the best flavor out of caraway by dry roasting. Roast until you detect the release of the volatile oils (your nose will know), then stop immediately. If cooked too long, the seeds turn bitter.
Paprika doesn’t overpower this national dish because caraway helps balance it—together, they create the unique flavor that defines Hungarian goulash. Use Hungarian paprika, if possible—it makes a difference. Serve over egg noodles.
2 strips bacon
2 pounds veal or beef cubes
¼ cup flour
2 cups sliced onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1½ teaspoons caraway seeds
1 teaspoon lemon zest
cup Hungarian paprika
1 cup peeled and cubed potatoes
1 cup sliced carrots
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon dried marjoram
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary
2 cups beef stock
1 cup strong beer
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1. Cook the bacon over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven until crisp. Remove. Dredge veal cubes in the flour and brown in the bacon fat. Remove from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.
2. Add the onions and cook until soft but not browned. Add the garlic, caraway seeds, and lemon zest and cook one minute. Stir in the paprika and stir to coat well. Return the meat to the pot and stir again. Add the potatoes, carrots, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, stock, and beer. Stir in the tomato paste. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat, cover, and cook for 1½ hours.
3. Turn off the heat and remove the meat and vegetables with a slotted spoon and keep warm. Let the liquid cool slightly. Skim off the fat. Stir in the sour cream. Whip the mixture into the sauce and simmer until the sauce thickens. Return meat and vegetables to the sauce and heat through.
Makes 6 servings.
Caraway’s flavor is strong and tends to dominate other flavors. Unless you want to feature its flavor, use less caraway than other spices in your recipes. Here are some ideas for adding more caraway to your diet:
• Caraway goes naturally with pork. Sprinkle it on or around a roast or chops in the last 15 minutes of baking.
• Caraway goes well with apples. Add it to your favorite spiced-apple recipe.
• Add a pinch of caraway to an onion tart recipe.
• Serve apples and caraway on a cheese tray. In addition to the cheeses already mentioned, caraway goes well with Gouda and Gorgonzola.
• Mix toasted seeds into cottage cheese or yogurt.
• Make this popular German potato dish: Halve unpeeled potatoes lengthwise. Dip the flesh side in melted butter, then in a plate of caraway seeds. Bake, cut side down, at 400°F for 30 minutes or until soft.