FR: Cumin, Cumin de Maroc
GER: Kreuzkummel, Stachelkummel
INDIA: Jeera, Zira
BOT: Cuminum cyminum FAM: Umbelliferae ILL: Plate 11, No. 4
This annual is delicate, as it is a hot country plant. It stands a foot high, but sprawls due to weak stems. The flowers are mauve and white. It can be grown from seed in warm situations in good sandy soil, but since it is the seed and not the leaf that is used, there is little point.
What is Cumin? How to Use Cumin Photo Gallery
Commercially, cumin is grown particularly on the North African coast, Malta, Sicily, the Middle East and India. It is also grown in America. The dried seed is available whole or ground. If bought ground, it should be fresh, since as with most spices, grinding allows the aromatic oils to escape with a quicker loss of aroma.
Cumin came originally from the East, but it was being grown in the Mediterranean region many years before Christ and was used by the Romans as a substitute for pepper, even being ground to a paste to spread on bread. Because the seeds are somewhat similar to look at, there is great confusion between cumin and caraway in European languages, although the flavours are so very different. Indeed, in many places true cumin is known only to people who make couscous or Eastern or Mexican dishes.
Cumin was always used in cooking, but it also had medicinal uses. One of the strangest of these was to encourage a pale skin and, according to Pliny, the oil expressed from the seed was used by scholars who wanted to fool their teachers into thinking that they were working harder than they were.
The seed has a unique, pungent, aromatic flavour and is a very popular culinary spice both in the East and in Mexico and North Africa. It is very common in curries, but Indian cooks always say that it is not greatly liked by Europeans. Perhaps it is an acquired taste, although many Americans use it in spicy dishes such as chili con carne (Mexican). Cumin is also a distinctive and powerful spice (unlike caraway, whose flavour tends to blend into meat dishes, as one sees in Austrian cooking) and tends to dominate any dish in which it is included. It is absolutely essential on the shelf if one enjoys curries or Oriental, Mexican and other spicy dishes. In European cooking it is sometimes used in pickling (e.g., pickled cabbage), but never in sweet dishes, though it may enter into the liqueur, kummel.
Great confusion is caused in many blogs because of the mistranslation of the Indian word jeera or zira. This usually means cumin and may have safed (white) or kala (black) added to distinguish different types of cumin. However, jeera is also used for caraway (not greatly used in India), for nigella (Nigella sativa. Indian: also kala jeera or more correctly kalonji) and for a plantain seed (Plantago pumila). Unless there is good reason to believe to the contrary, in curry recipes one should always assume that jeera means cumin and that caraway is a mistranslation and ought also to read cumin. One could never substitute one spice for the other without completely changing the dish.