From Akvavit to Sauerkraut
Caraway seeds are the flowers of a plant that looks like Queen Anne’s lace but is actually from the parsley family. These tiny brown dried flowers are intensely aromatic and have a warm, nutty flavor touched with anise, dill, and sometimes lemon. Caraway seeds are widely used in German, Austrian, and Hungarian cuisine. Caraway is probably the most typical spice of the German-speaking countries. It is an ancient spice of Central Europe. Caraway fruits have indeed been found in Neolithic villages (though that only proves that the plant grew there, not that caraway was actually eaten), and since Roman times. There is plenty of documentation for numerous culinary and medicinal applications, not the least is caraway-flavored liquor, that is mostly produced and consumed in Northern Germany and Scandinavia (akvavit). Caraway is the spice that gives Southern German and Austrian foods, whether it is meat, vegetable or rye bread, their characteristic flavor. It is also popular in Scandinavia and particularly in the Baltic states, but is hardly known in Southern Europe.
True caraway aficionados use the whole fruits, but even the powder is strongly aromatic. Caraway’s aroma does not harmonize with most other spices, but its combination with garlic is effective and popular in Austria and Southern Germany for meat (e.g., roast pork Schweinsbraten) and vegetables. German Sauerkraut is always flavored with caraway (and juniper). Unfermented boiled cabbage without caraway lacks character.
Caraway is a controversial spice; to many, it appears dominant and disagreeable, when used in a recipe, especially to those who are not used to a cuisine rich in caraway. Usage of the ground spice is a working compromise; another method is wrapping the fruits in a small piece of linen cloth (or simply a tea bag or other infuser) so that it can be removed before serving, much like we would do with whole bay leaves. If you ever find references to caraway in books about Middle East, Indian or Far East cooking, then the most probable explanation is a translation mistake and you should probably read cumin. The same holds for the appearance of caraway in several Bible translations. Finally, there are some Indian cookbooks employing caraway for North Indian foods, but I suspect that black cumin (a much milder form of cumin) is what is really being called for.
There is no reliable substitute for caraway seeds.