CARAWAY (Carum carvi – Umbelliferae)

Caraway is a biennial plant, native to south-eastern Europe, and now grows in the wild and in cultivation all over Europe and temperate Asia. It is not native to Britain, and has become naturalized in the USA. It is an umbellifer, like cumin and coriander, and grows to about 60 cm (2 ft) in height. Its leaves are feathery, rather like carrot leaves (Umbelliferae is the carrot family), and umbels of white or pink small flowers are followed by the seed fruit. These are sickle-shaped and striped, the shape dictating the confusion with cumin (the tastes are essentially quite dissimilar). The plant self-seeds easily, and it is found wild in France in the Vosges, and in Alsace, near to Germany. It is cultivated for culinary use, particularly in Holland, Germany, Austria and Russia.
The name in English is thought to derive from the Arabic al-karwiya or al-karawiya, which became in Old Spanish alcarahueya. Because it is known as carvi in French, Lemery, a seventeenth-century botanist, decided that the name originated from the Carie province in Asia Minor where caraway was thought to originate (but that was probably cumin – the confusions are many). Another species exists, C. copticum or Ajowan, and this is used in Indian cooking and native medicine; the seeds are rich in thymol.

Fossilized caraway seeds have been found in Neolithic dwellings in Switzerland, and in Mesolithic sites, so it was in use up to 8,000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians used the spice in religious ritual, and in cooking to make foods like bread and onions more digestible. Theophrastus recorded a recipe for oysters, eaten with caraway for the same reason; another culinary expert, Etimus, cooked lentils with caraway and thyme. The Romans ate caraway seeds after meals to sweeten their breath, and in cakes with other seeds to ease digestion. Caraway seeds are frequently offered after an Indian meal to sweeten the breath.

The School of Salerno and St Hildegarde considered caraway to be carminative, a stimulant, a diuretic, emmenagogic, galactagogic and stomachic.


Description: Caraway oil, distilled from the seeds, is colourless, sometimes with a tinge of yellow which darkens as the oil matures. The smell is more musky than cumin, more fruity and hot.

The principal constituents: 50-60 per cent carvone; others are carvacol, carvene, and limonene. Researches have confirmed that this high proportion of carvone helps the digestion, stimulating and releasing gastric juices.


In illness
Caraway is excellent for all digestive problems like flatulence, pain, dyspepsia, colic and colitis. The oil is also considered to be a mild antiseptic.

For difficult adult digestion, chew a few seeds slowly, drink a glass of warm water, and try to breathe deeply for a few minutes. Digestion should start, and the pain will be relieved. For a tisane for indigestion, steep 5 ml (1 tsp) lightly crushed seeds in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 10 minutes. Drink after meals. This is also good for dysmenorrhoea.

For children’s nervous colics, mix together well 50 ml (2 fl oz) soya oil, 2 drops wheatgerm oil and 12 drops caraway. Put the bottle under a hot tap to warm the oil, then massage some gently into the child’s stomach clockwise for a few minutes. Apply a warm poultice of linseed or oatmeal to the stomach, cover with a towel, and leave for 15 minutes. The pain should disappear.
(See also dysmenorrhoea and dyspepsia.)

In cookery
Caraway is used as a seasoning mostly in Central Europe. In Germany and Austria, particularly, the seeds are used in sausages, pates, in cheeses, rye and other breads, sauerkraut and fresh cabbage dishes, beetroot dishes, with meat (especially pork) and in some goulashes and other meat casseroles. Caraway seeds added to bread doughs and soft white cheese makes them both much more digestible. You could also add them to butter eaten with cheese for the same purpose. Mixed with aniseed and fennel seeds into butter and spread on wholemeal bread, they can help digestion of the latter.

Other uses
Caraway oil is also used in perfumery and in the soap industry. Historically, the seeds have been used in bags to scent drawers and clothes, and to keep moths away. Napoleon is said to have used a soap scented with caraway. The oil of caraway is used in baked goods and confectionery.

Caraway, known as Kiimmel in Germany, flavours (often along with some cumin) the liqueur also known as Kiimmel. The earliest recorded caraway liqueur was that made by Lucas Bols in Amsterdam in 1575. The confusion between caraway and cumin exists even in the drinks industry, as reputedly the finest of all Kiimmels is something called Creme de Cumin.

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