Cumin, also known as cumin seed or cummin, is the dried, tiny seed of the Cuminum cyminum (a member of the carrot family), and is related to parsley. Native to Egypt and the warmer regions of the Mediterranean, cumin has been used for thousands of years – the spice was praised by the Romans and Greeks, appears several times in the Bible, and ancient seeds have even been found amongst the pyramids.
Cumin is a diminutive, pretty plant with long, thread-like leaves and little pink or white flowers. The plant itself is an annual and usually grows no higher than 20-24”; it prefers dry, hot growing conditions. Cumin seeds, which are contained within the plant’s petite fruit, are small – roughly ¼ inch in length – brownish in color, and almond shaped. The seeds have distinct ridges which run vertically down their length, and the entire outer surface is covered with tiny, almost microscopic bristles.
Cumin has a heavy, multifaceted odor which is a mix of sweet and spicy. The flavor is somewhat bitter, with a piercing sharpness and a touch of heat. As a result, cumin lends itself well to the legendarily complex spice blends of Indian masalas and curries and is a staple of Moroccan cuisine.
Black cumin, despite the name, is actually the seed of a different species of plant (the Cuminum nigrum). The seeds are smaller and darker, and produce a significantly different taste and aroma than true cumin. To make things more complicated, aniseed and fennel are often referred to as “sweet cumin”; though all within the same family of plants, these are very different spices and should not be confused with one another when in the kitchen.
Cumin historically was a popular spice in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cuisines; the Greeks and Romans were said to have utilized it similarly to modern salt or pepper, placing it in its own container on the dinner table. Nowadays cumin appears most frequently in Moroccan, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and North African cooking, though the spice seems to crop of in an impressive array of other world cuisines from time to time: the Dutch use it to flavor some cheeses, the French use it occasionally in baking, the Spanish throw it in stews and certain breads, and North Americans love it in chili.
The seasoning often works best in combination with other herbs and spices, and therefore is a frequent ingredient in spice blends. Most notable are Moroccan chermoula (onion, garlic, coriander leaf, cumin, chilli, black pepper, saffron), Middle Eastern zhug (cumin, cardamom, garlic, and chilli), Indian garam masala (cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper, clove, mace, cinnamon, etc.), and Mexican recado rojo (Mexican oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic, salt, and annatto); it is also a staple of North American favorite chilli powder.
Cumin has been used for millennia as a medicinal plant – schools of natural medicine tout its stimulant and antimicrobial properties. Cumin does have proven carminative and antispasmodic qualities, and is therefore said be useful in the treatment of diarrhea, stomachache, and menstrual cramps. Eastern medicine also recommends it for pregnant women to settle morning sickness and increase breast milk production.
As an additional note, old magic used to advise the use of cumin to keep both chickens and lovers from straying – try sprinkling it on your spouse and see what happens.
Use and Storage
Ground cumin seed is a greenish-brown or brownish-red powder which can be easily found in most food stores. The whole seeds, which are also available in some stores but can be a bit harder to find, should always be roasted before being used whole (roasting brings out the appealing aroma). Whole seeds, once roasted, can be ground by hand with a mortar and pestle, or pounded with other spices to create masala and/or curry powders. Always keep ground cumin in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
*Note: Cumin is powerful stuff. It can easily overpower all other flavors in a dish if used with a heavy hand. Always start with a little (1/2 a teaspoon is generally all it takes for smaller family meal) and add more afterwards if needed.
- In curry powders and spice blends
- Added to plain rice and/or beans
- In chile con carne or hearty beef and bean stews
- In dry rubs for BBQ or grilled meats
- To season ground meat for tacos or burritos
- In sweet and/or savory chutneys/salsas
- With grilled lamb
- In spicy chicken dishes
- In pickling fluids for cucumbers or beets
Recipe using Cumin
Garam Masala Spice Blend
This potent Indian spice blend can be used in a variety of Indian dishes calling for garam masala spice or “hot spice blend.” It is most often used in meat and vegetable dishes served with rice, so find your favorite Indian recipe and get cooking!
4 whole cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon cardamom
7 whole peppercorns
Roast all ingredients lightly on a skillet until fragrant and aromatic.
Place roasted ingredients in a coffee grinder and blend to a fine powder (or, to yield more flavorful results, pound and grind by hand with a mortar and pestle). Store powder in airtight container.
Papaya-Mango-Black Bean Salad with Roasted Corn and Cumin
Refreshing, sweet, and just a touch spicy, this makes a perfect appetizer or first course for summer BBQ’s and dinners.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup mango juice (fresh squeezed, if possible)
¼ cup apricot juice (fresh squeezed, if possible)
Juice of one lime
1 ½ tablespoons honey
1 – 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin (add more after tasting if desired)
1 ripe papaya, roughly chopped
1 mango, roughly chopped
2-3 ears corn, grilled or roasted, cut off cob
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup red onion, diced
2-3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped (add more if desired, up to ¼ cup)
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste (optional)
Combine dressing ingredients in bowl. Whisk to blend. Add papaya and mango and coat with dressing. Add in corn, beans, onion, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Toss to coat. Chill for at least one hour before serving.