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?
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)
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.
- 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.
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?