Brassica nigra: Black mustard

Family: Brassicaceae
Common name: Black mustard, Rai, Kaduku

Mustard seeds are so common in the Indian kitchen that curries are incomplete without a ‘tadka’ of popped mustard seeds, red chillies and curry leaves. They add an earthy, nutty flavor to dishes, especially to chutneys.

Black mustard plants can grow to a height of 1-1.5 meters with few small, lobed or simple, toothed leaves at the base of the plant. Flowers and fruits are borne on tall branches. In the flowering season, mustard fields erupt with bunches of bright yellow flowers which is quite a sight to behold.

If you search for mustard fields or ‘sarson ka khet’, you will see acres of large fields full of yellow flowers, mostly in Rajasthan and Punjab. These bright flowers attract small birds, bees, and insects that help pollinate them. Once pollinated, the plant produces long, thin seedpods that are 3-5 cms long.

These green seedpods become bumpy and bulged with the seeds inside, turning yellow and then brown when they mature. If they are not harvested, the seedpods burst open lengthwise to release the mustard seeds.

Mustard seeds are dark brown or black, about .5-1mm in diameter, though there are varieties with slightly larger seeds as well. The leaves are also eaten raw or cooked, called mustard greens. Young flowers and seedpods can also be eaten raw or cooked, adding gentle heat to the dishes.

Mustard seeds are yellow inside and so is the mustard sauce made with a combination of yellow, white, and black mustard seeds, spices, vinegar, salt, and honey.

This mustard sauce goes well with burgers, hotdogs, sandwiches, and meat dishes like pork and beef. Mustard oil extracted from the seeds is very commonly used in North Indian cooking. It’s also used as a lubricant and in soap making.

There are so many variants of mustards like Leaf mustard, Snow mustard, Curled-leaf mustard, Horned mustard, Large-petiole mustard, Head mustard, Root mustard, Korean red mustard, etc. which are used in different cuisines all over the world.

White mustard or Brassica alba, Indian mustard or Brassica juncea are some of the common varieties found in India in addition to wild mustards like Sinapis arvensis.

These plants can be grown in home gardens, though harvesting and extracting the seeds is difficult in small batches. Individual seedpods can be rubbed together by hand, when they are brown and mature to release the seeds. Commercially there are high-end and low-end machinery that can extract mustard seeds from large bundles of plants that are harvested and tied together.

This unique spice has some medicinal uses too, in the treatment of colds, muscle pains, rheumatism, headaches, epilepsy, tooth pain, and respiratory infections where a poultice made from mustard is applied to the chest and back of an infected person. The seeds are also said to have antiseptic, stimulant, and laxative properties.

Propagation is through seeds.