Darius, the King of Persia famously sent a box filled with sesame seeds and among them, a lone gem, to Alexander the Great. With the sesame seeds, Darius threatens Alexander with his large number of troops. Alexander, unperturbed, sends a bag of mustard seeds. After a soldier, ordered to eat the mustard seeds, spits them out, Darius finds out that the mustard seeds are much more potent in flavor than sesame seeds. Alexander goes on to wipe out Darius’ army with Darius narrowly escaping with his life.
The mustard seeds are native to Eurasia and have been in use for at least 5000 years. There are even mentions of the mustard seed in the Bible and Buddhist parables.These little mustard seeds don’t have much aroma when you smell them, but bite into them, and you will be hit with a pungent fiery flavor. The essential oil of mustard is very potent indeed but being volatile, its potency is lost rapidly.
Many Indian recipes call for mustard. Only some specify what you really need: black mustard seeds. Not the yellow condiment you put on your hot dog.
There are three kinds of mustard seeds – black, brown and yellow. The black and brown are very similar in appearance and flavor though black mustard seeds are slightly sharper. The yellow mustard is more mellow and is what is normally used in the condiment. These varieties though come from different plants:
- Black – Brassica nigra
- Brown – Brassica juncea
- Yellow – Sinapsis alba
Black or brown mustard seeds are used whole in Indian cooking, especially in South Indian cooking. Many curries and vegetables are flavored with oil tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, green chilis and sometimes asafetida. Mustard powder is rarely used in Indian cooking with the exception of pickles. In eastern India, in Bengal, mustard paste is frequently used in preparing fish dishes like shorshe machh (mustard fish).
Apart from its usefulness in flavoring, mustard has many health properties. It is a good source of selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. It is an anti-inflammatory and is also said to speed up the body’s metabolism.