All cumin is not created equal: The Moroccan spice (on the right) has a fresh, earthy, almost vegetative aroma. Indian cumin (on the left) is warm and mellow, with a touch of citrus.
"No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…" In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Proust was talking about tea and madeleines, of course.
But I’m thinking of cumin.
Many of us have a scent-memory that so completely envelops us in a golden haze of well-being that the disasters of the day are instantly reduced to nothingness, like shreds of papery ash floating in the air after a raging fire.
Do you have a fragrant memory that transports you to a feel-good place? The smell of a succulent turkey roasting in your grandmother’s Magic Chef gas range(the one with the enameled blue and white Delft tile pattern that you’d die to have in your own kitchen)? The sultry scent of a voluptuous French rose on a humid summer day?
Here’s mine: I’m fourteen, shambling into the kitchen, completely bedraggled, my school uniform—detested middy blouse and shapeless navy skirt—sodden with cold February rain. I’m as miserable as a 14 year old in a private girls’ school in comfortable circumstances can possibly be. Why? None of your business.
But trust me, I was in the deepest, darkest despair. A lump in my chest, tears in my eyes, nothing to live for.
So I’m walking into our kitchen, and on the stove (you knew this was coming) a clay pot of black beans is simmering, perfuming the air with garlic, smoky bacon and… something else… that Aurora has stirred into the pot. There’s a warm, earthy scent, a smell that telegraphs a comforting message: “Relax. You’re home. Safe.”
I tip a spoonful of the beans and their liquid into my mouth. Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. The vise around my heart dissolves, my stomach unclenches. I’m flooded with warmth and, dare I say, joy…
Cumin was the “something else” wafting through the kitchen that day, and now whenever I smell it—in San Antonio or Marrakech, Mumbai or Vera Cruz--I feel wonderful. It’s a sure cure for the blues, balm for a ragged spirit on brutal days.
I call it “the sunshine spice.”
But one thing’s for sure, you either love cumin or you hate it. It’s not a spice that leaves you on the fence.
One of cumin’s virtues—or not, depending upon how much you like it—is its powerful aroma. The smell is so distinctive that smugglers seem to like it almost as much as chefs. A year after 9/11, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article entitled “Suspicious Cargo: For U.S. Customs, Trade and Security Clash on the Docks.” (September 12, 2002, pp. A1 and A10.) A subhead read: “Opening 1,600 Bags of Cumin.”
After becoming suspicious of a shipment of “80,000 pounds of ground cumin seed packed in 50 pound bags” that had traveled from Beirut to New Jersey via Ankara, a customs agent had his team unload the cargo and jab the bags with metal rods. Although they failed to discover drugs or contraband, the action did “expose enough cumin to make the Customs dock smell like a restaurant.”
Smugglers aside, cumin tends to be underrated in the kitchens of Europe and North America. Oh the seeds are used to flavor Dutch cheeses and German sausages, and it’s often confused with caraway which has vaguely similar looks and aromatic properties. When we think of it at all, it’s a spice we associate with "ethnic foods": Tex Mex chili, Indian curry powder, maybe the smell of a middle eastern grocery.
But in many other places cumin might be called "the queen of spices." In North Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and India, cumin shines in scores of dishes, flavoring everything from chicken enchiladas with tomatillo salsa to curries and tagines. Without it, iconic blends such as Moroccan ras el hanout, Indian garam masala and Egyptian dukkah would be very different. In these blends, cumin not only adds its own distinctive taste but also rounds out the flavor of the other spices.
Historical 1880 print from the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library.
Here are a few facts about cumin:
Plant Family: Apiciae or Umbelliferae, which includes other aromatic plants, such as dill, chervil, coriander, anise and parsley, as well as toxic plants such as hemlock and wild carrot.
Botanical Name: Cuminum cynminum
Description: Cumin is the fruit of a stalky annual plant with feathery blue green leaves that flourishes in hot climates. When it blooms, the plant produces small white or pink flowers that yield clusters of “fruit.” When dried, it produces small, very slender, slightly curved "seeds," pale green or light brown in color, marked with striations and sporting almost invisible hairs.
Native to North Africa and the Mediterranean, today cumin is principally grown in Morocco, India, Turkey and Iran which, says Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice and Herb Bible, produces the best quality “green” cumin. Not surprisingly, it is a key spice in the cuisines of those countries, as well as much of the Middle East, Mexico and South America.
Cumin’s flavor and aroma vary depending upon where it grown, but in general it is aromatic, earthy, pungent, with a slightly bitter, pine-like taste. In On Food and Cooking, Harold Magee explains that its flavor components include phellandrene and pinene, which give the spice fresh, aromatic overtones, but that the dominant component, cuminaldehyde, creates cumin’s unique, unforgettable scent. No other spice has it.
Historical snapshot: The Romans reveled in cumin as they did in most spices. In De re coquinaria, a cookbook thought to have been compiled in the 4th or 5th century AD, the author—supposedly a gastronome named Apicius—included it in a “summary of seeds” that every household must have. It is a key ingredient in many sauce recipes, including one for oysters and clams composed of pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, Malabar leaves, honey, vinegar, broth and “quite some cumin.” It is a seasoning in exotic recipes for boiled ostrich, crane with turnips, and roast boar, as well as for stewed pears and a version of pumpkin "pie."
Perhaps this is the place to mention that cumin is considered a carminative and a digestive aid, qualities which the Romans might have appreciated.
Strangest application: The ancient Egyptians are said to have used cumin in the mummification process. In Spices: History of a Temptation, Jack Turner describes a curious twist on this practice: European kings and noblemen were often embalmed for display after death, using costly spices such cinnamon and cloves. But by the 15th century, “it was not unheard of for criminals’ heads, once they had been removed by the royal executioner…to be parboiled and seasoned [for preservation] though apparently with cheaper aromatics such as cumin.”
One spice, two very different flavors: When toasted, Moroccan cumin becomes stronger and harsher, whereas Indian cumin develops a nutty, citrus-like taste.
How to cook with cumin:
1. Always buy the whole spice. Properly stored in a cool, dark cupboard, whole cumin will keep for up to 3 years, whereas ground cumin tends to lose aroma and flavor within months.
2. If using whole cumin, bruise it lightly in a mortar and pestle before stirring it into the pot. In general, add cumin, whole or ground, early in the cooking process so that its warm, aromatic flavor has time to permeate the other ingredients.
3. Toasting cumin will change the flavor of the spice, not always for the better.
Moroccan cumin, which has a soft, almost vegetative aroma, smells a bit like incense when being toasted—but heat also seems to destroy the subtler flavor components, giving the spice a harsher, stronger taste. Indian cumin, on the other hand, develops a deliciously nutty taste, and heat accentuates the light citrus flavor of the raw spice.
My advice? Toast your cumin seed ahead of time to see if you like its taste. One of cumin’s virtues is its ability to balance other spices and flavors—qualities not to be tossed aside lightly.
4. How to toast cumin: Heat a dry cast iron skillet over a medium low flame. When it is hot to the touch, add the cumin seed and stir. When the spice releases its aroma and the seeds just begins to darken, remove the pan from the heat and pour the cumin onto a small plate. Let it cool before grinding. Never let cumin or any other spice get too dark: Burned spices taste bitter.