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Jul 29, 2009 07:45 AM

Ajwain/Carom in Chinese food?

Recently I was having dinner at Great NY Noodletown (in Manhattan Chinatown), and since my meal was kind of bland I spooned some of their hot chili oil (the kind with lots of sediment in it, almost a paste) over my dish. In addition to than the usual flavors of hot pepper and maybe a little garlic, there was another spice in there that I couldn't quite place but that reminded me strongly of Indian food. The next day - and this must have been my subconscious trying to tell me something - I was eating my favorite snack of matzoh crackers with cream cheese, salt, and ajwain seeds when I realized that this was the flavor I'd noticed at Noodletown - ajwain. I was surprised, since I'd never heard of ajwain seeds being used outside of Indian cooking (and, according to Wikipedia, some parts of the Middle East and Northeast Africa.) Has anyone ever heard of it in Chinese food? For the record, the chili sauce was delicious.

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  1. Also thanks to Wikipedia, apparently it's called "xiang zhu la jiao" in Chinese, though the only other sources I could find for that were carbon copies of the Wiki article.

    1. interesting observation emmmily!

      i guess it migrated from the middle east to china on the spice trail.

      does anyone know if the chili-sauce-with ajwain condiment mentioned by emmmily is a northern or southern chinese condiment?

      2 Replies
      1. re: alkapal

        NY Noodletown is known for its roast pork & duck and its salt-baked dishes. The rest of the menu consists mostly of congees, "Hong Kong style" lo mein, "Cantonese style" wide noodles, some noodle/wonton soups, various things served over rice, and the kind of pan-fried noodles that end up crunchy rather than soft (except where the sauce has soaked into the top layer on the plate). So it looks like the focus of the restaurant is mainly south-eastern China? Has anybody else seen it used there, and if so how? Given ajwain's provenance I'd expect to see it more in food from China's western areas, nearer Tibet.
        I'm finding this pretty fascinating. Ajwain is a fairly new discovery for me - I briefly sublet an apartment this spring with an Indian roommate, who made the most amazing parathas with it - and I'm always interested in finding new ways to incorporate it into my cooking.

        1. re: Emmmily

          i saw that recipe for parathas with ajwain on google.

      2. Personally, I've never heard of it, and I'm Chinese, haha. It's probably a regional thing--the tastes of China are hugely varied, after all!

        Writing away about my latest 3 week adventure through China at

        1. Hmm, I don't know if Wikipedia is right on the "xiang zhu la jiao" thing. Carom isn't a la jiao (hot pepper) at all.

          I took a look at the pictures and I'm almost certain this was/is in my mom's spice cabinet. She never made Indian food for us, but did make a lot of Taiwanese, Sichuan (in not-very-spicy versions since Dad and I are both spice weenies) and Shanghainese dishes. I'm sort of thinking that maybe she used it in beef noodle soups, but I wasn't able to find a recipe online and my memory is definitely a bit fuzzy on this.

          Just e-mailed Mom a picture of the spice. I'll let you know if she has anything to report. :)

          9 Replies
          1. re: cimui

            Yeah, nothing spicy about it. Gotta love Wiki...Looking forward to hearing what she has to say!

            1. re: cimui

              I think Wiki may be wrong, as you say cimui. Ajwain is not a hot pepper (e.g. 辣椒). It is a plant (or more precisely, a weed).

              That said, I've seen this used in broth for beef noodle soup, as well as for braised pork shank or pork rump.

              Lots of times anise (or aniseed) will be subbed for ajwain in beef noodle soup broth.

              1. re: cimui

                Ok, so I just talked to Mom. She says it could be a number of different spices, all of which look similar, but if it's about a centimeter in diameter, it's likely to be "hui shang" ("hui shiang"? sorry... my romanization skills are questionable). It's a spice that's used to marinate meats of all different kinds, like what ipsedixit said. Mom used it in braised beef and beef noodle soups for the most part (along with a whole host of spices I don't know the English word for). According to her, it's not all that uncommon a spice in Chinese cooking. Hope that helps!

                1. re: cimui

                  Cimui, I think your mom is probably talking about xiao Hui xiang.

                  I was hasty last night when i posted. Hui Xiang 茴香 (without the character for small, 小in front, is the same as Cumin, which is also called 孜然 (zi ran), and also called 阿拉伯茴香 (literally arabic fennel seeds).

                  When it's the Xiao Hui Xiang 小茴香, it's the fennel seeds.

                  1. re: HLing

                    Ah, thanks! 小茴香 is not the same thing as carom, huh?

                    1. re: HLing

                      Just looked up xiao Hui xiang. Very similar looking, but not quite the same - ajwain has the same stripes down it but is much smaller and rounder (see my photo below). Hmmm.....

                    2. re: cimui

                      These are way smaller than a centimeter, maybe 1mm diameter and 2mm long or so. They look pretty similar to cumin seeds, but much smaller. Here's a photo of ajwain seeds (the little ones), next to some larger cumin seeds for comparison and a penny for scale. I wish I could post the scent online; it's so distinctive you'd know in a second if it was something you'd eaten!

                      1. re: Emmmily

                        nice picture! I typed in "Ajwain Chinese name" in the search and came up with this page:
                        where the Chinese name is listed as 印度藏茴香, or, Hindu Tibetan Cumin (you probably recognize these words by now: 茴香.

                        1. re: HLing

                          Great article, thanks! It mentions ajwain's (medicinal) use in Malaysia; maybe that's how it ended up in chili oil from south-eastern China? I wish I recognized those characters, but unfortunately they show up on my screen as little squares with numbers inside.

                  2. It could be cumin, dill seeds, fennel seeds, anise seeds. You might find something if you look up 孜然, 茴香 and 小茴香。 I think Cumin came to China in the year 900s from Persia.