Skip to Content
  • Pinterest
  • Save
  • Facebook
  • Email
  • Print

Spicy Sunday: What is Cumin?

Created January 26, 2017
A staple in Mexican, Indian and North African dishes, cumin is an aromatic spice that's been used for millennia.

You might be familiar with recipes for Mexican dishes calling for cumin, but if you've been flexing your cooking muscles lately you're seeing it in Indian, North African, Mediterranean and even some Chinese dishes. With its peppery flavor and aroma, cumin is perfectly suited for adding warm, somewhat nutty notes to all sorts of dishes.

A Little History

Cumin, the seed of a warm-climate herb native to Egypt, has been used for milennia in cuisines worldwide. Ever made up your own curry powder? If so, you noticed that there's a lot of cumin in curry powder! In addition to India's curries, cumin is also a component in the garam masala spice blend. Cumin is common in Mexican cooking, often used in tandem with chili powder — in fact, most pre-packaged "chili powder" you buy at the supermarket has cumin in it. The Szechuan region of China utilizes cumin, and the Dutch put cumin in Leyden cheese.

When we said cumin's been used for milennia, we weren't kidding. It's mentioned in the Bible for seasoning breads and soups, and was even used to pay tithes to priests. Ancient Greeks and Romans loved using cumin in their cooking. Ever seen an Egyptian mummy in a museum? You saw cumin — ground cumin was one of the ingredients used in the mummification process. Cumin was very popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly because it could be used as a substitute for black pepper, which was much rarer and more expensive.

Even More Uses

Such a popular spice has some intriguing lore surrounding it. Cumin has been put to medicinal, cosmetic, and even aphrodisiac uses. The seeds, when steeped to make a tea, have been used to soothe upset stomachs. In ancient times, students used cumin to make their complexion pale to impress their teachers — it appeared they'd been up all hours studying! More recently, in the Middle Ages, cumin gained a reputation for strengthening the bonds of love, an extension of an ancient belief in cumin's aphrodisiac properties.

Cumin is used both as seeds and ground. The seeds resemble caraway, which isn't a surprise because the herb is closely related to both caraway and parsley. As with most spices, for optimum flavor you should buy the whole seeds and grind them into a powder yourself with a mortar and pestle. If you're going to do this, try toasting them first in a sauté pan over medium heat, watching closely, to bring out the flavor.

Think Warm

When using cumin in cooking, think warmth. Anything that has cumin added takes on a warmer feel. Try these combinations in your dishes: cumin, tomatoes and turmeric; cumin, chickpeas and yogurt; cumin, cayenne, coriander and garlic; or even cumin, cinnamon and saffron.

Cumin goes great in Mexican, Indian and Moroccan cuisine, and complements lentils, beans, rice, sausages, eggplant, lamb, pork, potatoes and rice. For instance, try adding toasted cumin seeds, almonds, and chopped dried apricot to brown rice or couscous. Or season sautéed veggies with a bit of cumin. Whatever you try, you know that you're using a time-tested, aromatic spice that has made food more delicious for eons.