There is a good reason for that characteristic "love it or hate it" moment when you sink your teeth into a slice of traditional rye bread. It is caraway. The distinctive flavour you also find in sauerkraut, traditional borscht and other eastern European and Scandinavian favourites - a small crescent-shaped seed with deep roots in Ashkenazi culinary history.
Strongly aromatic caraway (whose seeds are technically classed as fruits) is a member of the parsley family along with dill, anise, fennel and cumin. It is native to Egypt and east Mediterranean countries, but is cultivated all over Europe, North Africa and Asia.
Chewing on just a few aromatic seeds is said to disguise the smell of alcohol on one's breath, and it is used in many commercial mouthwashes. Conversely, it is also an ingredient in some types of gin and the main ingredient in a liqueur called kummel.
Ancient Egyptians used caraway plus garlic, opium, coriander, mint, and other herbs and spices mostly for medicinal use. It was also thought to bring protection from evil spirits, so they buried seeds with their dead.
When mixed with peppermint, caraway can help in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, while a mild distillation has been found to help problems of colic in tiny babies.
Historically, before the arrival of the potato, cabbage was the main Ashkenazi vegetable. Claudia Roden writes in her Book of Jewish Food, that every shtetl smelled of cabbage. It was cooked in a number of ways but the common flavouring was caraway. She goes on to explain that all Jewish families had at least two barrels in their cellars - one for gherkins and the other for sauerkraut, to which caraway would often have been added within the layers of cabbage during the pickling process. Cream cheese mixed with caraway and gherkins is a classic deli combination.
Caraway can be combined with breads, cakes biscuits but is most commonly used in savoury dishes, including cheeses, vegetables, meats and even soups. It works well when added to onion chopped and gently fried until golden, with diced autumn apples and an equal portion of red cabbage, then simmered until tender and sweet. Or add a teaspoon of ground caraway to blinis or to a shortcrust pastry for a salmon and dill quiche.
Eastern Europeans add caraway seeds to dumplings, noodles and omelettes, and it pairs deliciously with a hot potato salad, especially combined with fresh dill and chopped pickled cucumbers.
For a sophisticated twist on retro cheese straws to serve with drinks, place some ready rolled all-butter puff pastry on a board, brush with a beaten egg and sprinkle with any grated cheese. Add a light sprinkle of caraway seeds mixed with poppy seeds or sesame seeds. Cut into 3cm strips widthways. Twist a few times as you place them on a lined baking sheet and bake in a hot oven (220˚C) until bubbling and golden.
Serve immediately, or store them in a tin and warm in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving.