A is for Ajwain
An abecedary of Indian food, in no particular order.
Ajwain--or as it's variously known,omum, om beeja, ajowan, bishop's weed, or carom seed--is one of the lesser-known Indian spices. Lesser-known in the West, anyway. In appearance, it looks uncannily like cumin (or any number of other seed spices, for that matter). In fact, though, ajwain isn't a seed at all, but the fruit of an annual herb that belongs to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family (the latter classification gets its name from the umbel-shaped flowers of plants in the family, which also includes celery, carrots, and parsley).
Ajwain is rather sparingly used in South Indian cooking, but it is widely known, especially for its properties as a digestive aid. Kashayams (decoctions made out of a mixture of spices and herbs) used to treat stomach aches routinely include ajwain.
Less therapeutically, ajwain acquires an exquisite savory note to food when fried in oil. As a result, it makes a delicious addition to fried dough snacks like namkeen, murukku, and the like. I like to add a teaspoon or so of it to savory pie crusts. The flavor is hard to nail down--an ineffable blend of fennel, cumin, and black pepper.
Ajwain leaves, which are thick, succulent, and velvety, are a mainstay of many coastal Kannadiga dishes. The leaves are often simply called doddapathre, or "big leaf" in Kannada. The flavor of the leaves is bright and thyme-like, but with an intense peppery kick.
You can easily find ajwain seeds in most well-stocked Indian stores. Or, if you can, try growing some. It makes a beautiful (and useful) container plant. In addition to providing you with leaves for chutneys all through the summer, you can harvest the seeds at the end of the season, and use them sprinkled on savory crackers, mixed into shortbread cookies, or in a pie crust, like the one I use in my spiced spinach galette.