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Carried Away With Caraway

Though you may not realize it, the caraway seed (Carum carvi) is in practically everything you eat in the Baltics. This tiny little seed’s history goes back thousands of years and was used as ancient medicine, ancient flavoring and as a special ingredient in magic spells. Nowadays, the caraway seed is less used for magic, and more likely to be found in some of the region’s most famous and tasty culinary delights.

It freshens breath, wards off evil spirits, and is a prime ingredient in ancient love potions. It also is one of the main herbs in Baltic foods. This is not surprising as the Balts have oft incorporated this special, magical ingredient into their national dishes. Caraway seeds flavor some of the most common Baltic foods: Sauerkraut, black bread, the famous John’s Day cheese, and a multitude of deserts and baked goods.

Native to Eastern Europe, the herb has ancient folkloric roots in many cultures reaching as far back as 4000 BC. Ancient Egyptians used to sprinkle the seeds on their dead to protect them from evil spirits. The army of Caesar ate bread made of caraway roots. Folklore traditions also say the herb was used to prevent theft and used it in love potions to attract and allure mates. Ancient peoples used to sprinkle caraway seeds on prized possessions, with the belief that it would protect the item from thieves. Used in a love potion, it would prevent the lover from straying. In German folklore, parents would put a dish of caraway seeds beneath their children’s beds to protect them from witches.

Uses and Cures: The herb, like many popular Baltic herbs (such as dill), is a well known cure for many ailments. Caraway seeds can help soothe gas and aid digestion as well as freshen up breath. The oil and essence is also used in many herbal types of liquor in Latvia and Lithuania. Caraway tea is also popular even today. Seeds steeped in hot water have been known to soothe colicky babies, calm a sore throat and is commonly imbibed to cure colds, fever, coughs and appetite loss. A caraway tea is prepared by adding 1-2 tsp. of pressed seeds to 150 ml. of boiling water, left for 10-15 minutes to sit and then drained.

The finished tea should be taken 1 to 3 times per day for maximum results. Feeling anxious or hysterical? The caraway seeds are also a good calmative for both nerves, and stomachs. Have weak intestines? Caraway seeds are widely considered by herbalists to strengthen the intestines and aid digestion as an antispasmodic.

Used by dentists for ages, the seeds also contain antiseptic properties, which not only freshens breath, but gets rid of nasty germs in the mouth. A luscious moisturizer, the caraway oil (and sometimes seeds) is a common additive in soaps and lotions, promoting smooth, clean, pleasant smelling skin. The plant itself can grow from about one to two feet in height, and is topped by tiny white flowers. Technically and botanically speaking, caraway is not actually a seed, but a fruit. Even though the seeds/fruit have tremendous culinary uses and potential, the roots too are often cooked and eaten like a parsnip or carrot and possess a mild flavor.

A good substitute for mashed potatoes; the delicate root can be flavored with the caraway seeds, a double whammy of antiseptic and anti-flatulent properties. Caraway, one might say, is like the “anti-coffee”. As a tea, or chewed, it brings a near instant calming effect, and works better than the better known calming chamomile tea. If you aren’t one for using herbs as medicine, stretch your culinary skills with some age old Baltic caraway ideas. To bring out the best flavor, it is advisable to roast the seeds a bit, either in a saucepan with a little butter, or plain. The resulting sauce is great for green beans or, after cooling, is delicious on toast.

Caraway is said to have been used in Europe longer than any other condiment, so it comes as no surprise that the herb is still in use today in the most popular and delicious dishes of the Baltics.

By Monika Hanley