What is Cumin?
Cumin is native to the Levant and Upper Egypt. It now grows in most hot countries, especially India, North Africa, China and the Americas. The spice is especially associated with Morocco, where it is often smelt in the abundant street cookery of the medinas.
Cumin was known to the Egyptians five millennia ago; the seeds have been found in the Old Kingdon Pyramids. The Romans and the Greeks used it medicinally and cosmetically to induce a pallid complexion.
In Indian recipes, cumin is frequently confused with caraway, which it resembles in appearance though not in taste, cumin being far more powerful. This is due to a misunderstanding of the Indian word jeera. The term usually means cumin, but can occasionally mean caraway, so in doubtful cases, cumin is generally to be understood.
The use of the terms ‘black cumin’ for nigella, and ‘sweet cumin’ for aniseed or fennel, further confounds this confusion. As a general rule interpret jeera or zeera (jira, zira) as cumin and kalonji as nigella. When the seeds themselves are in doubt, cumin is easily distinguished from the other Umbelliferae by its flavour, and its shape and colour is quite different from nigella.
Classically, cumin symbolised greed; thus the avaricious Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, came to be known privately as ‘Cuminus’
Cumin is the seed of a small umbelliferous plant. The seeds come as paired or separate carpels, and are 3-6mm (1/8-1/4 in) 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. They resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in colour and unlike caraway, have minute bristles hardly visible to the naked eye.
They are available dried, or ground to a brownish-green powder. Cumin is freely available in the West, although it is not a traditional European spice. Bouquet: Strong, heavy and warm. A spicy-sweet aroma. Flavour: Pungent, powerful, sharp and slightly bitter. Hotness Scale: 3
A small, slender, glabrous herbaceous annual, of the parsley family. It usually reaches 25 cm (10 in) (some varieties can be double this height),and tends to droop under its own weight. The blue-green linear leaves are finely divided, and the white or pink flowers are borne in small compound umbels.
Cooking with Cumin
Cumin is used mainly where highly spiced foods are preferred. It features in Indian, Eastern, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Portuguese and Spanish cookery. It is an ingredient of most curry powders and many savoury spice mixtures, and is used in stews, grills – especially lamb – and chicken dishes. It gives bite to plain rice, and to beans and cakes. Small amounts can be usefully used in aubergine and kidney bean dishes.
Cumin is essential in spicy Mexican foods such as chile con carne, casseroled pork and enchiladas with chili sauce.
In Europe, cumin flavours certain Portuguese sausages, and is used to spice cheese, especially Dutch Leyden and German Munster, and burned with woods to smoke cheeses and meats. It is a pickling ingredient for cabbage and Sauerkraut, and is used in chutneys.
In the Middle East, it is a familiar spice for fish dishes, grills and stews and flavours couscous – semolina steamed over meat and vegetables, the national dish of Morocco. Zeera pani is a refreshing and appetising Indian drink made from cumin and tamarind water. Cumin together with caraway flavours Kummel, the famous German liquer.
Preparation and Storage
The seeds should be lightly roasted before being used whole or ground to bring out the aroma. Cumin may also be pounded with other spices in mixtures such as curry powder. Ground cumin must be kept airtight, to retain its pungency. This spice should be used with restraint – it can exclude all the other flavours in a dish. Less than a teaspoon of it will flavour a meal for four.
Health Benefits of Cumin
Cumin is stomachic, diuretic, carminative, stimulant, astringent, emmenagogic and antispasmodic. It is valuable in dyspepsia diarrhoea and hoarseness, and may relieve flatulence and colic. In the West, it is now used mainly in veterinary medicine, as a carminative, but it remains a traditional herbal remedy in the East. It is supposed to increase lactation and reduce nausea in pregnancy.
It has been shown to be effective in treating carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as diarrhea, indigestion, and morning sickness. Cumin also shows promise as a natural way to increase breast size. Used in a poultice, it relieves swelling of the breast or the testicles. Cumin stimulates the appetite.
Cumin is grown from seed. A hot climate is preferred, but it can be grown in cooler regions if started under glass in spring. A sandy soil is best; when the seedlings have hardened, transplant carefully to a sunny aspect, planting out 15cm (6 in) apart. Seed regularly. The plants bloom in June and July. The seeds are normally ready four months after planting. Cut the plants when the seeds turn to brown, thresh and dry like the other Umbelliferae.
Anise Acre, Cumin Acre, Cummin, Sweet Cumin
German: Kreuzkümmel, Romische Kümmel
Italian: cumino Spanish: comino
Arabic: kammun, kemouyn
Indian: jeera, jeraka, jira, zeera, zira, sufaid…, safed…(white), kala…(black), kalonji(cf Nigella)
Malay: jintan puteh
Sinhalese: cheeregum, jeera, su(du)duru