Special Ingredients: Cumin

Cumin is one of those spices, that grows on me; the more I use it, the more I appreciate its versatility – it adds a depth of flavor to the dish that I love, but without the astringency that coriander can add.  Even my so called “spice adverse” dinner companions appreciate its contribution to the food, and none claim to be allergic to it.  Because my introduction to cumin was through Indian food, I  have a strong association between the spice and that cuisine.  So strong that at one point I ended up with twice as much as I needed.  When collecting spices for a recipe, dutifully collected my missing ingredients in an Indian market, including a spice called jeera.  Not until going through my spice collection and struggling to organize it, did it dawn on me that jeera strongly resembled cumin.  A taste test settled the matter: jeera and cumin were one and the same.  That discovery prompted a look at what cumin could be used for, because, I certainly had an ample supply and hated to see it wasted.  Thankfully, uses are only limited by my imagination, as cumin is considered second only to pepper in popularity, and is a vital ingredient in many cuisines.

What is It?

image from uni-graz.at

Cumin is a member of the umbelliferous family, whose traits include a long hollow stem.  Siblings are familiar in the kitchen: dill, fennel, caraway, gotu kola (pennywort), parsnips and parsey – there’s even a black sheep or two in the family such as hemlock.  What we call cumin seeds are actually the fruit.  The seeds come as paired or separate carpels, and are ~¼” long.  They have a striped pattern of nine ridges and oil canals, and are hairy, brownish in colour, boat-shaped, tapering at each extremity, with tiny stalks attached.

Cumin seeds are often mistaken for caraway seeds, which they are related to and resemble, but are lighter in color, and unlike caraway have minute bristles hardly visible to the naked eye. They are available dried, or ground to a brownish-green powder. The scent is strong, heavy and warm; a spicy-sweet aroma.  Cumin’s flavor is pungent, powerful, sharp and slightly bitter.

It is also frequently confused with black cumin (which it is also related to). and is sometimes called white cumin in various European languages to distinguish it.

Frequently found in, and commonly used (food):

  • Chili powder mix
  • Indian spice mixtures such as Garam Masala, Panch Phoron and Sambar Podi
  • North Indian yoghurt drinks invariably have a sprinkling of cumin for an extra touch – Zeera pani is a refreshing and appetising Indian drink made from cumin and tamarind water
  • It can be found in Middle Eastern dishes such as kibbeh, and many others including fish dishes, grills and stews and flavours couscous
  • It gives bite to plain rice, beans and cakes
  • It spices up cheese, especially Dutch Leyden and German Munster, and it is burned with woods to smoke cheeses and meats.
  • Cumin coupled with caraway flavors Kummel, the famous German liqueur.
  • Northern European foods containing cumin include: sauerkraut, sausages, stews, breads, biscuits, cheese and alcoholic drinks
  • Mexican’s Chorizo (spicy sausages), spiced sauces such as Mole would not be the same without it
  • Ancient Roman and Greek kitchens considered cumin a good substitute for black pepper which was very expensive and rare
  • The seeds are frequently heated to “wake up” the flavor, so they are often toasted before being ground into a spice mix.
  • Add them to oil to impart flavor to whatever you intend to sauté
  • Cumin and potatoes are a match made in heaven

Cookbook author Ramin Ganeshram points out in an article in the Washington Post website, that several varieties of cumin exist: Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian. “I find that the Middle Eastern or Indian varieties have a more pungent flavor than the Mexican kind, which is milder.”   So depending on your dish, and cumin options, you may want to take this information into consideration.

A Bit of History about this Versatile Spice

Some Uses throughout History

The Romans and Greeks used cumin as a medicine and as a cosmetic (it can make your skin pale)

image from italophiles.com

Egyptians used for cumin as one of their embalming or mummifying spices, and has been found in Old Kingdom pyramids, circa 3000 B.C.E.

Roman and Greek kitchens of antiquity valued cumin as a good substitute for black pepper which was very expensive and not widely available.

Ground cumin, pepper, and honey – mixed well and served as a tonic – was considered an aphrodisiac of sorts used to strengthen the bonds of love in certain Arabic cultures.

Probably the earliest evidence of the seed’s use in Western Europe, was on France’s west coast where archaeologists have discovered that the native Celts there were rather fond of fish baked in cumin.

In Eastern medicine, cumin was used by the ancient hakims in virtually all their mixtures, as it was believed that the spice was one of the few substances that passed through the digestive tract virtually unscathed, only to release its properties directly in the liver. In the Eastern holistic medical systems of Ayurveda and Tibb, cumin was a digestive, easing stomach cramps and colic and it was also used for this purpose in Norman monasteries around the 8th century AD.

The herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, combined botany and astrology in his 1652 work, The English Physitian, saw cumin as positive and strengthening, assigning the planet Mars as its ruler. All across Medieval Europe, cumin was regarded in common lore as a safeguard against infidelity. It was used in love potions to keep a lover faithful and, in Germany, a bride would carry cumin, dill and salt in her pocket during her marriage ceremony to ensure a faithful and long marriage.

The Germans also associated cumin with security, believing that anything containing it would be safe from theft, and baked it into bread to prevent it being stolen by wood spirits. In a similar vein, a young man, leaving his home to join the army, shared a glass of cumin-flavoured wine with his sweetheart, who in turn would give with him a cumin-flavoured loaf to ensure his safe return.

How did you get your name, and who can we thank?

Two theories come to light as to its route to Western Europe, I leave it to you to determine which one is to be believed.

The Romans introduced cumin as a cooking spice to Britain and Europe where it remained popular until the Middle Ages when caraway became the new “hot”  spice.  Cumin remained popular in Spain much longer, and it’s popularity in Mexican cooking can be attributed to its use by the Spaniards during the conquest and settlement of Latin America. In this theory, the name developed like this: English “cumin” comes from Latin cuminum, which was borrowed from Greek kyminon [κύμινον]   (option 1)

Other sources site that the Spanish introduced cumin to Western Europe (option 2):  The English “cumin” derives from the French “cumin”, who in turn borrowed, albeit indirectly from the Arabic “كمون” Kammūn via Spanish comino during the Arab rule in Spain. The spice is native to Arabic-speaking Syria where cumin thrives.  Cumin seeds have been found in some ancient Syrian archeological sites. The word likely started in Syria moved to neighboring Turkey before it found its way to Spain.  Like many other Arabic words in the English language, cumin came to Western Europe via Spain rather than the Grecian route.

Other Names

  • French: cumin, cumin blanc, Cumin du Maroc, Faux anis
  • German: Kreuzkümmel, Kummel, Mutterkümmel, Römischer Kümmel, Weißer Kreuzkümmel
  • Italian: cumino, cumino bianco
  • Spanish: comino, comino blanco
  • Portugese: cuminum kumin
  • Japanese: umazeri
  • Iranian: zireh, zeera
  • China: ziran (孜然)
  • Ethiopian: kemun
  • Turkish: kimyon
  • Arabic: kammun, kemouyn,l-kamuwn (الكمون)
  • Indian: jeera, jerragam, jeraka, jira, zeera, zira, sufaid
  • Malay: jintan puteh, jeergie, jeeragam
  • Tamil: cheeregum, seeragam

Curious as to the name of cumin in other languages? Here’s a good place to start.

Confusing Cumin

photo from seedfest.co.uk

In Indian recipes, cumin is frequently confused with caraway, which it resembles in appearance though not in taste.  This is due to a misunderstanding of the Indian word jeera.  The term usually means cumin, but can occasionally mean caraway.  So when in doubt, cumin is generally understood to be what is required.  The use of the terms ‘black cumin’ can be for Nigella, or kala jeera , an entirely different spice.  ‘Sweet cumin’ refers to aniseed or fennel and just further complicates things.  As a general rule, jeera or zeera (jira, zira) = cumin, and kalonji = nigella.

Trouble with the Name – Confusion Abounds:

Many European languages do not distinguish clearly between the two.

For example, in Czech caraway is called kmín while cumin is called římský kmín or “Roman caraway”.  The Hungarian language offers a similar challenge: (kömény for caraway and római kömény [Roman caraway] for cumin). In Polish the difference is almost insignificant- caraway is kminek and cumin is kmin rzymski, which is even more confusing as kminek is a diminutive of kmin (notice the -ek suffix, as in ‘kot’ – a cat and ‘kotek’ – a small cat). In Swedish, caraway is called “kummin” while cumin is “spiskummin“, from the Swedish word “spisa”, to eat, while in German Kümmel stands for caraway and Kreuzkümmel denotes cumin. In Finnish, caraway is called kumina, while cumin is roomankumina ) “Roman caraway” or juustokumina (cheese caraway).  You get the picture, my head is starting to spin.    [source: wikipedia]

Options abound for this versatile spice, well beyond Indian cooking:

Muhammara (walnut and chili dip) is a favorite

If Turkish cuisine, is your fancy, and really how could it not be, check out these yummy lentil balls

A truly international cook delivers a cumin and saffron flavored butternut squash risotto

Thinking of soup?  How about sacocho de pescado (Colombian fish soup)

How about Greek simit kebab?

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25 comments for “Special Ingredients: Cumin

  1. January 28, 2010 at 4:53 PM

    You’ve got another informative post as usual.
    I often use cumin powder in cooking satay. It’s quite hard to find some fresh cumin plants here.

  2. January 28, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    Interesting. I like cumin, but I don’t use it as much as I’d like to. Maybe this year, I’ll be a little more adventurous in terms of my spice choices. I can see how they can be mistaken for caraway, too.

  3. January 28, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    Cumin, how I love thee! I, too, came to cumin from Indian cooking, so I also have strong associations with its usage there. Over the years I have developed other favourite ways of using it, though, one of which is to season my cheddar cheese toasties. And of course, as you say, cumin and potatoes are heavenly partners and I couldn’t agree more :)

  4. January 29, 2010 at 6:09 AM

    I love this post about COMINO! This is my favorite spice and I use it in almost all my dishes.Cumin is very important in Colombian cuisine.Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

  5. January 29, 2010 at 7:06 AM

    I am tempted to toast cumin seeds for no particular reason other than the aroma! It is a grand addition to breads.I love the folklore behind it. I always have cumin. But of course being in MN, it is in the form of seeds. Have never seen the plant.

  6. January 29, 2010 at 8:21 AM

    Cumin is one of my all time favorite cooking spices–love the flavor and the aroma. Strong and powerful but so fantastic. I use it quite often, ground and in seed form. Great review of the history!

  7. January 29, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    When I first discovered cumin I had to go to the kitchen many times a day just to sniff it. I was in love. And now I have to sneak it into food – both my parents ‘claim’ to hate the stuff but little do they know how often I use it.

  8. January 29, 2010 at 8:48 PM

    I think cumin is the spice container in my rack that gets re-filled most often. Now, you have me thinking about making some potatoes with cumin!

  9. January 29, 2010 at 10:21 PM

    I’ve never seen the actual plant before. It’s quite pretty.
    I like making cumin-glazed carrots. Cumin is so incredibly potent that I can still smell the cumin in the house even the next day after cooking with it. 😉

  10. January 30, 2010 at 8:15 AM

    This is so good!!! I had seen it added to Colombian recipes but like you, thought it was mainly used in Indian Cuisine! Really, really great post and very much appreciated! I know what to do with the spice now lol

  11. January 30, 2010 at 6:44 PM

    I started using cumin when I cooked my first Indian dish and since then has been using it very often in my cooking. Cumin, fennel, turmeric are my fav indian spices.

  12. January 31, 2010 at 4:19 AM

    I hated cumin growing up – not because I disliked the flavor so much as because of the negative associations I had of it involved in crappy Tex-Mex that most Americans, at that point, believed to be REAL Mexican food. As a young Mexican, it drove me crazy and eventually led me to an unncessary prejudice against the spice. These days I love it. I especially enjoy it ground, with lime and thyme on sauteed fish. Great for fish tacos!

  13. admin
    February 1, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    Christine – thanks. I have never used fresh, but get the whole fruit that I grind or treat as needed. I’d be curious to see the differences with the fresh fruit.

    Jenn – give it a shot, you might be pleasantly surprised

    Spud – Potatoes are the perfect combo with many a spice, but there is something almost divine about its relationship with cumin.

    Erica – my pleasure

    Lisa – I go through so much of it too.

    Carolyn – it is pretty, for the record its also related to some of our beloved Queen Anne’s Lace and other “pretty” weeds.

    Ruth – my pleasure!

    Tigerfish – I’m with you, I love how adaptable this spice is.

    Brenda – I can understand your feelings, but I’m so happy you came around.

    Claudia – I’ve baked with it before, but not too frequently, putting together this post made me realize I needed to do more baking.

    Lisa – thanks!

    Reeni – funny how that is, and how you sit and giggle when they eat the stuff.

  14. February 3, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    I loved learning more about cumin and especially was interested about the origin of its name!

  15. February 3, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    Cumin is often used in Indian Cuisine. It has a very unique flavor. I always enjoy your special “ingredient” post, as usual :)

  16. February 4, 2010 at 10:19 PM

    I’m curious how cumin turns skin pale. It would be funny to smell cumin from people’s faces! 😀

  17. February 5, 2010 at 6:28 AM

    Your experience reminded me of my time in Brazil. It took me forever to find spices and then even longer to realize what they actually were in regards to my English translation.

    I’ve always associated cumin with Mexican food, but as you’ve displayed here it definitely has its use in many different cuisines. I love the photo of the actual plant too. I was well into adulthood before I began to realize that all those dried spices in the cupboard were plants at one time. Ha, ha!

  18. admin
    February 5, 2010 at 7:03 PM

    Natasha – Great, glad to oblige

    Jackie – Thanks!

    Kitchen M – I could not find any real details, although i did learn it involved smoking the cumin

    Lori – My second affinity with the spice is Mexican food, funny how we so strongly relate it in one way we sometimes loose sight of all its versatility.

  19. February 6, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    As always, great info here. Main take-away point for me is on the confusion of caraway and cumin in Indian recipes. I’ve found that to be the case. So it certainly helps to be armed with this knowledge when approaching Indian cookbooks.

    Also interesting is the use of cumin in the Graeco-Roman world as a skin lightener. I vaguely remember my grandma saying something once about how people in the generation before hers used to grind up cumin seeds into a paste and mix it with something else to treat melasma. Interesting. This may work better than Hydroquinone.

  20. February 13, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    Now I want a dosai so I can smell the cuminy goodness rise up into my space!

    I want to shout to the world how wonderful your post are, and I feel I fall short of the education you provide your readers…cumin love comin your way!

  21. admin
    February 14, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    Leela – I know, now theres confusion where I had no idea it even existed

    Chef E – Ah, thanks – a good dosai sounds about perfect right now!

  22. February 18, 2010 at 12:37 AM

    Cumin is definitely one of my very favorite spices ever! I love making rice or curry dishes with it. :) Thanks for this post.

  23. February 23, 2010 at 7:20 PM

    I looove cumin. I put it in nearly everything. Thanks for the informative post- I really knew nothing about this spice except that I liked it. Subscribing now!

  24. admin
    February 24, 2010 at 6:31 AM

    Sook – A favorite for me as well, so incredibly versatile!

    Daily Dose – Thanks! Glad you liked it.

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