Untoasted- Bitter, Earthy, Citric
Toasted - Earthy, Nutty, Savoury
Origin and Names
Cumin is one of the oldest and most widely used spices in cuisine worldwide.Native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, it has documented use as far back as 5000 BC, and was even used by the ancient Egyptians as part of the mummification process. The word English word Cumin traces its origins from the Latin cuminum which itself can be further traced to the ancient Mesopotamian language Akkadian. The Roman scholar Pliny referred to Cumin as the “best appetizer of all condiments”. In northern European folklore the spice was believed to prevent lovers growing apart and so was often a part of marriage ceremonies or gifted to soldiers to prevent their affections wandering whilst away from home.
Cumin seeds can be used whole or ground, and can be toasted to impart a less pungent and more mellow flavour. Cumin is derived from the plant Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. It is sometimes confused with the related caraway, which seeds are also used as a flavorant. Today ground and whole cumin is used widely in Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Geography and Cultivation
Believed to originate in Iran and the Mediterranean, the cumin plant is now cultivated across the world. The largest exporter today by far is India however other countries such as Iran, Syria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates produce notable quantities. While not native to the Americas it was brought there by Europeans and soon became a staple spice in the cuisines of central and South America.
The plant itself is a herbaceous annual shrub growing up to 60cm in height, it produces rosettes of small white flowers which when fertilised produce the cumin seeds. Cumin grows in tropical to subtropical climates, preferring areas of low humidity. As opposed to other spices, locale seems to have less impact on the flavour profile of cumin. The primary driver of flavour difference between different cumins is oil content, with higher oil content being favoured for stronger flavour and aroma. At Hill & Vale we source our Cumin from Pakistan.
Being such an ancient and widely cultivated spice, cumin has become so widespread in many different cultures that it is impossible to list all of its uses. In countries such as Morocco the spice is commonly used as a table spice, constantly available in ground form to season any dish in the way we in the UK use salt and pepper.
It is a foundational part of Mexican cuisine where it provides an earthy and warming character upon which the hotter chillies can build. It is a common ingredient in Mexican chilli powders and spice rubs. In Indian cuisine cumin can be found frequently in curry powders or other spice mixes such as garam masala. It can be ground with coriander seeds to produce the mix Dhana jeera. These are just a few examples but cumin can be used in nearly any cuisine, experimenting with this spice can be very rewarding and can help you add a lot of depth to a meal.
Cumin has a lot of utility when it comes to vegan and vegetarian cooking with its earthy, woody notes adding substance and heartiness to dishes that might otherwise lack it.