Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Said to be the second most popular spice globally, here we delve into the description of cumin; where it is found and how it is used. A common ingredient in cuisines all over the world, we look at cooking with cumin and the uses of cumin in curries, as well as its herbal remedies.
Cumin is the seed of a small umbelliferous plant that is part of the parsley family. The plant has a slim stem that grows to 20cm tall and has small pink and white flowers. The plant needs a hot climate to grow and is hand harvested when the seeds turn brown. The seeds themselves are about 3-6mm in length and are sometimes confused with the caraway seeds, but are lighter in colour.
Originally from the East Mediterranean and Eastern India regions, the cumin plant now grows in India, North Africa, China and the Americas. It is said to be the second most popular spice globally after black pepper.
Cumin can be used as a whole dried seed or ground to a brownish-green powder.
The seeds should be lightly roasted before being used whole or ground to bring out the aroma. Ground cumin needs to be kept airtight to preserve its strong flavour.
Popular in Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, West Chinese and Brazilian cuisines.
Cumin is used for its distinctive spicy-sweet aroma. It adds an earthy and warming feeling to cooking, making it a key ingredient in certain stews and soups, as well as curry and chilli. It should be used sparingly as it can over-power other flavours. Less than a teaspoon is adequate to flavour a dish.
In Indian cooking both the cumin seed and powder are used. It is also one of the seven ingredients used in the popular garam masala spice mix as well as curry and chilli powder. 80% of dishes will have cumin in them as a base. It is sometimes used in special naan breads. Cumin can be mixed with tamarind water to make a refreshing and appetising Indian drink called Zeera pani.
Historically, Romans and Greeks used cumin medicinally and cosmetically. Today it is still used in many cultures for health purposes.
In South Asia, toasted cumin tea (dry seeds boiled in hot water) is popular and used to distinguish false labour(due to gas) from real labour. The same tea is used in Sri Lanka to soothe severe stomach problems.
People in parts of South Asia commonly believe cumin seeds help with digestion. Some scientific evidence suggests cumin may aid digestion by stimulating enzymes to break down foods.