A Modicum of Black Mustard Seed
Black mustard seed is a key ingredient in Indian cuisine. It is prized for its aggressive flavor, and, when it is used judiciously, brings an unusual and exciting kick to dishes of all kinds. It is especially welcome in vegetarian and vegan cooking, enhancing other flavors in these dishes while giving them a pleasing dimension of intensity.
The flavor of black mustard seeds is a very potent one. They are the most ‘mustardy’ of the three types of mustard seeds—which also includes yellow and brown—and bring the heat to Dijon, gourmet and artisanal mustards. Black mustard seeds are also the most highly valued of the three types of mustard seeds, as they are difficult to harvest and cannot be collected using machinery.
Cooking with Black Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds should be toasted or tempered before being used in recipes (except, of course, mustard recipes, where they are typically soaked overnight for best flavor). A light toasting will remove their raw bitterness, and bring out their full flavor potential. Typically black mustard seeds are crushed before being used.
If you’re exploring Indian cuisine in your own kitchen, one form of spice preparation is called tadka. Tadka is a process of pre-cooking a spice mix with oil in a skillet, pipkin, small saucepan, or a kadai, which is an Indian wok. The mixture is added to the dish as a sauce before serving. Black mustard seeds bring a pungent, nutty flavor and bouquet to the table when cooked.
In global cuisine, black mustard seeds may be used in lentil, potato, and roasted vegetable dishes. They match well with more assertively flavored meats like duck, and are used in cream sauces for steak and lamb.
A few other uses for black mustard seeds:
- Pickled as a relish, with or without other ingredients. Black mustard seeds are also a natural addition in chutneys which use stone fruit, tropical fruit, or brandy;
- Salad dressings and vinaigrettes;
- Pork dishes;
- Vegan rice and vegetable dishes;
- Seafood curry recipes.
History and Origin of Black Mustard Seeds
The use of mustard seed as a flavoring agent for food may date to prehistory; an article in a 2013 issue of The Smithsonian Magazine describes food analysis of 6,000 year-old ceramic cooking pots from Western Europe revealing traces of mustard seed, among other herbs and spices.
Relatively more recently, the ancient Romans adopted mustard seed and used it to blend an early version of what may have been the first condiment; that makes mustard lovers tried and true traditionalists! The black mustard plant—Brassica nigra—has been cultivated in India since at least 2,000 B.C.E.
Mustard seed is also invested with significant spiritual associations. Apart from its less well-known role as an entrancing agent used by less forgiving vodou practitioners, mustard seed is used in biblical metaphor and parable to signify the growth potential contained in even the smallest seed.
Black mustard seed is also used as a traditional folk medicine, a role which rounds out this spice wonderfully as a triune source of sustenance.
Cultivation of Mustard Seeds
The cultivation of black mustard seed has origins in the Middle East, Turkey, Pakistan, and India. Today, black mustard seed is grown globally. It favors tropical areas, but it is a hardy plant, and is grown in low-to-moderate rainfall temperate zones as well. Of the approximately 40 varieties of mustard plants grown globally, only three produce the familiar, edible seeds.
Brassica nigra is an easy plant to grow, but black mustard seeds themselves—unlike their yellow and brown brethren—are difficult to harvest, and collection must be done by hand soon after the seeds become ripe. This makes the harvesting of black mustard the most labor-intensive of the mustard seeds, and for that reason it is being overshadowed by less flavorful brown mustard.
Our Black Mustard Seed
We source Burma Spice black mustard seed from Rajasthan, India, where it has been cultivated for generations. India produces the best mustard seed in the world, and our black mustard is no exception—it is intensely flavored, and suitable for Ayurvedic medicine.