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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cumin: An Ancient and Thoroughly Modern Spice

Warm Chickpea Salad with Cumin and Garlic 

Cumin: An Ancient and Thoroughly Modern Spice
by Victoria Challancin

Many people think of cumin as a quintessential Mexican ingredient, and it may well be--in the north of the country.  But here in my corner of Mexico, cumin is used judiciously, with barely a whiff of it in any given dish.  And when there is too much cumin, the common response is the equivalent of "Yikes!  It tastes like Tex-Mex!"

Even though the cuisine of Mexico is one which is associated with an abundant use of cumin, the spice is a relative new-comer, arriving with the Spanish conquistadores.  Originating probably in Egypt, it spread to the Mediterranean (including Europe), India, Iran, and later through the trade route to China and other parts of the world.  From Europe it made its way to Mexico, where it does appear in many, many dishes, albeit sparingly used.

Cumin:  A Bit of History

Revered since antiquity as both a spice and as a medicinal plant, the history and lore surrounding cumin has had time to grow and settle.  With a history of over five thousand years, cumin comes to us today with a rich past.  Enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians as a culinary spice, it also was used in the mummification process as well as in ritual practices in temples.  The Old Testament mentions it several times, both as a source of currency for tithing and even how to harvest it!  The ancient Greeks loved it so much that they kept it on the table for diners to add directly to their food, just as in modern Morocco today (see the photos below).  And the Romans embraced it heartily and employed it in all sorts of dishes.

In early Europe, the Celts were known to have used it with fish dishes.  And later Medieval monasteries grew it in their herb gardens, helping to make it a common spice at a time when spices were somewhat rare and very expensive. At some point during the Middle Ages, however, cumin fell out of favor in Europe, except in Spain and Malta, where it remains popular today.

Unknown to the New World prior to around 1500, cumin came to the Americas via the Spanish and Portuguese colonists and traders, and took hold north and south.  Today it remains a fixture particularly in the cooking of Brazil, Mexico, and the American Southwest.

Cumin in Folklore

In ancient Greece, cumin symbolized excessive desire and was also said to be eaten by the miserly.  In ancient Roman folklore it was also often associated with greed, but also frugality.  Later, in the MIddle Ages in Europe, when cumin was one of the most common spices used, it became recognized as a symbol of love and fidelity as shown by wedding guests who often carried it in their pockets.  And as for the bride and groom, it was carried as a sign of commitment.  And soldiers were sent off to war with loaves of bread scented with cumin for good luck.  It was also thought effective in keeping lovers from wandering--lovers and chickens, that is.  Yes, it was used to keep both close to home.

The Arabs took it one step further:  they mixed it with black pepper and honey, considering it to have aphrodisiac properties.  Pliny the Elder, that great Roman naturalist and philosopher, also weighed in, calling cumin to be the "best appetizer of all condiments."  He also suggested that smoking the seeds would give a desirable "scholarly pallor."  And Socrates himself considered it beneficial as an aid to scholarly pursuits. 

Fresh cumin seeds from India, brought by a loving friend--in a coconut shell bowl

Culinary Uses 

After black pepper, cumin is the second most popular spice in the world, lending its distinctive aroma, warmth, and heady earthiness to the cuisines of Morocco, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Malta, Cuba, northern Mexico, Spain, Brazil, the Middle East, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajkistan, and western China.  As for cumin's use in these countries, it often makes an appearance in such diverse spice blends as garam masala, curry powder, bahaarat, ras el hanout, American chili powder, and the Mexican blends for achiote paste and adobo.  Cumin also stars in some Dutch cheeses, such as Leyden, some traditional breads from France,  and in the Latvian cumin liqueur called Kummel.

Historically speaking, part of cumin's culinary popularity was due to the fact that its peppery flavor made it an affordable replacement for black pepper, which was hard to obtain and very expensive. Frugality couldn't possibly be the whole answer, however, as cumin does impart a sensuous depth and distinctive warmth to any dish it graces.

How to Use Cumin:
In addition to the various spice blends mentioned above, cumin is easy to incorporate in all sorts of dishes.  One easy example is to make a tea, or infusion, by allowing a teaspoon of cumin seeds to come to a boil in about a cup and a half of water, then leaving them to steep for about 10 minutes--in Morocco, this is a common remedy for upset stomachs.  Another easy way to incorporate cumin seeds into your cooking is to add them when roasting vegetables in olive oil.  

When I first began to seriously explore Indian cooking while living in the Middle East in the 1970s, I learned from a friend that a ratio of two parts ground coriander seeds to one part ground cumin seeds makes a great combination for seasoning all sorts of dishes--just use your imagination (I love it with tomato and rice).

Do you suffer from insomnia?  Try mashing a ripe banana with cumin and eating it at bedtime.

And a family favorite of my son's is a rice dish I made frequently when he was young (he ate it with corn):  Sauté basmati in ghee or butter with about teaspoon of freshly ground cumin (mix it with twice as much ground coriander as a variation), then cook it in either water or broth.  Easy and delicious.

When possible, buy whole cumin seeds, lightly toast them in a dry skillet for about 45 seconds, and grind your own powder.

Here is a recipe I made in class recently.  This salad is fantastic--truly it is.  Rich with warm, complex flavors, it is both interesting and easy to make. A keeper.  A definite keeper.

I found this recipe here at the wonderful and inspiring site:  The Kitchn at

Recipe:  Warm Chickpea Salad with Cumin and Garlic
(Recipe from The Kitchn)
Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or to taste
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
3/4 cup Italian parsley, leaves only
Small handful fresh mint leaves
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3/4 pound English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch square cubes 
Flaky sea salt

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds and crushed red pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about one minute or until the seeds are toasted.  The cumin will turn slightly darker in color, and smell toasted.

Turn the heat to medium low and add the garlic.  Cook, stirring frequently, for about three minutes or until the garlic is barely golden.  Do not let it turn completely brown or burn.

Add the drained chickpeas and the chopped tomatoes and turn the heat up to medium high. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chickpeas are warmed through and are shiny with oil.  Turn off the heat.

Finely mince the parsley and mint leaves and toss with the chickpeas.  Stir in the lemon juice and zest. Toss the cucumber with the chickpeas and taste for salt.  

Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving or overnight.  Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Warm Chickpea Salad with Cumin and Garlic

Health Benefits of Cumin

A Brief Overview of the Medicinal Uses of Cumin:

Cumin is often used:
  •  as a diuretic
  •  as a muscle relaxant and preventative for muscle cramps
  •  as a carminative (gas-reducer)
  •  as an appetite stimulant
Of course, there are many more ways cumin is used for health benefits, but this list illustrates the best known medicinal uses.  

Let's Play "Spot the Cumin"
See if you can find the cumin in these rather dim photos of candlelit dinners in Morocco, where it normally accompanies black pepper and salt on the table in a three-way mini tagine.

A hint:  an example of the mini three-way tagine in which you find cumin, salt, and black pepper

This post will be my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted by Brii of Brii Blog, and begun by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen.  This will be my entry to Spicie Foodie's Your Best Recipe event for May.  I will also send it to My Legume Love Affair, begun by Susan Wolfe of The Well Seasoned Cook and hosted this month by Priya of Mharo Rajasthan's Recipes.  Thank you to each of you!

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Like life, recipes are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using my text or photos.  Thanks!


janet @ the taste space said...

Wow - who would have thought there would be so much history to cumin, one of my favourite spices? :) The combo of chickpeas + cumin never seems to fail me, and your salad looks great! :)

Hotly Spiced said...

I love cumin and I cooked with it last night. I coated chicken legs in cumin, black pepper and paprika, then seared them then added them to a casserole dish with lots of other ingredients. I didn't know the history of cumin though. And again, I love that bowl. Is it from Mexico Victoria? Great salad too. I have a few cans of chickpeas and plenty of cumin seeds so I'll give this a try. Looks beautiful! xx

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks, Charlie. And yes, the bowl is Talavera pottery, made in a nearby town called Dolores Hidalgo. Do try this recipe--it's great.

Eha said...

In the very fusion-cooking world of Australia cumin seems to be an ingredient in almost every second dish. Oft a recipe will require both cumin seeds and the powdered form. Using chickpeas at least a couple of times a week, I will be delighted to try this warm salad soonest. Knowing more of its history will add to the verbal fun around the dinner table - thanks!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I use lots of spices so i always find your posts like this so interesting!

Yvette ~ Muy Bueno Cookbook said...

Too funny! I hardly ever use comino, and when I do its just a dash. The smell reminds me of Taco Bell. Not a smell I want my Mexican food to smell like. LOL!

Coffee and Crumpets said...

I think I use cumin everyday! Being of Indian background, it's in every Indian dish I make. It's also great for nausea and indigestion. I usually chew a few seeds if I feel nauseous and drink some water. The chickpea salad looks amazing. I love chickpeas and they are made to go with cumin (also helps with the gas)We have an Indian salad very similar but we use tamarind as a dressing.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Dear Coffee and Crumpets, thanks for the additional uses for cumin--I'll add them to my list. Would love to see the recipe for the tamarind dressing for the chickpeas--sounds great. Here in Mexico, we have a lot of tamarind.

The Harried Cook said...

I adore cumin and love using it in a lot of my food but I resist the temptation because my husband just can't stand it :) This is was a very informative & interesting post and the warm chickpea salad sounds delicious! Thanks for sharing :)

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I know, Ben. It's fascinating how the Mexican cooks in my classes wrinkle their noses if I put "too" much cumin in any recipe. And yet...they do use it, just very judiciously. Maybe in the north of the country????

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Dear Harried Cook, It's too bad your husband doesn't like cumin, but I completely get it. Mine doesn't like thyme. This salad is just so delicious--maybe it would win him over??

Mark said...

Great info and background as always, Victoria. I am curious how cumin became so strongly associated with Mexican cuisine in the US. I wonder who came up with the standard taco seasoning mix in the US?

I like cumin, but I think I'll pass on the smashed bananas and cumin:)

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Hi Mark,
I don't really know how cumin became such a part of the TexMex scene--or even Southwestern food in general. But I do know that Mexicans tend to have a visceral, negative reaction if there is too much. Yet it does appear regularly in Mexican recipes, albeit in small amounts.

Lynne Daley said...

I would have to say that cumin is my favorite spice! Thanks for the informative post on that spice and for the delicious chickpea salad! I have some Talavera made in Delores Hidalgo, too!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

My jar of cumin disappears so quickly. I just love its flavor. I make a chickpea salad but have never warmed the ingredients before. It has to make it more flavorful.

FOODalogue said...

Very interesting (as usual), Victoria. I'm really surprised that cumin is the second most popular spice in the world. I probably would have guessed a dozen others before getting to that one.

I believe my first experience (and most frequent usage) is in Latin dishes, mostly Puerto Rican.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I know, Joan--it was a surprise to me too that cumin is the second most used spice in the world. But when you think of the cuisines of India, South America, and North Africa (not to mention the Middle East), then it makes more sense.

Susan said...

Warmth and fragrance...that's what I always enjoy in cumin.

A beautiful dish, Victoria. Thanks for sharing for MLLA.

Chompchomp said...

I love cumin too, sometime I get a it carried away with what I add it too though. I have actually started adding it to my viniagrette for salads to sweeten it a little. Delicious.

Anonymous said...

This is such a lovely post, Vicky.
But actually there are two kinds of plants of Cumin, they are of the same botanical family the Apiaceae/,Umbelliferae, like the Parsley.

In Europe we use the "German Cumin" or Kümmel, seeds from the Carvi - (carum carvi L.) it has not the same strong perfume as the Cumin -(Cuminum cyminum).
I also made a post some time ago, to explain the difference.

Thank you so much for sharing your post with WHB.
the round up is on line:

Victoria Challancin said...

Thanks,Briii, for the nice comments. I do know about black cumin as well, but will definitely go to your post to see what I am missing! Maybe I need a Part II! Thanks so much. said...

I just made a pot of Puerto Rican red kidney beans and I used adds so much flavor.

Nancy said...

Hi Victoria,

Cumin is one of my favorite spices. I really enjoyed reading this great post. Thanks for sharing all this information. Also thanks for being a part of May's YBR :)

Marisa Sauceda said...

Hello . I stumbled on your website because i absolutey LOVE CUMIN!!
I am Mexican American with both parents originating in Northern Mexico and Texas
I will say that CUMIN is very essential in all our foods that we prepare at home

My Mother taught me how to cook the foods that she grew up on which is not the typical Sterotype tex mex and
cumin is just as important to us as a Jalapeño and sour cream ! My Mother taught me how to use whole cumin seeds which we grind in a Molcjete , this technique is very much passed down and I will continue this for my children .
Thank you !!