Cumin spice is one of the mainstays of Indian cuisine. The cumin plant (jeera/zeera) is a herb and a member of the parsley family. It produces small dry fruits containing a single seed which is what is used as a spice, they are little boat-shaped stripey things which taper at both ends. It resembles fennel and caraway; slightly darker than fennel, lighter than caraway. (So label the jars because all these taste totally different) The smell is a quite strong mix of spicy and sweet. The flavour of cumin spice is quite pungent, slightly bitter and a little sharp.
It should also not be confused with Black Cumin - and it is confusing. There is a different spice of this name (shahi jeera or kali jeera) and this name is also sometimes erroneously used for nigella seed - also called onion seed. Shahi jeera is used in Northern Indian and Pakistan (it grows wild in Kashmir), it is more aromatic, sweeter with more complex flavours and is used in Northern Indian meat dishes such as rogan josh. I will do a full page on this when I get round to it.
Cumin spice is very old, certainly known to the Egyptians more than 5000 years ago and probably a native of Egypt. It is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Isaiah which is reckoned to have been written about 700BC.
It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Greeks used it as a table condiment like salt or pepper, indeed it is still used like this in some parts of North Africa. Although it had been used widely across Europe it somehow fell out of favour in most local cuisines but was eventually introduced to the Americas by the Spanish.
Like coriander, cumin spice is used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking and is strongly associated with Moroccan cuisine. But it is also used throughout the world, notable in Mexican chilli and in Spanish and Portuguese cooking. In Germany it is an ingredient in sauerkraut and used to flavour the liqueur Kummel.
It is also used in nearly all curry powders and in a great many Indian recipes. Like coriander it is one of the base spices in curry powder.
As with other spices it is best to buy and store it whole, and only grind what you need, the seeds contain quite a high oil content which evaporates when the seeds are ground. This seed should also be dry roasted before grinding, not too much, just a shade or two darker and this will produce the pungent earthy taste required. If the seeds are being used whole, then an alternative is to fry the seeds in a little hot oil for a few seconds before using. Its pungency can overpower other flavours if you use too much, so go carefully with this one.
Cumin spice contains good quantities of Vitamins A and C, and also Thiamin; it also has Calcium and is extraordinarily rich in Iron.
The seeds are used as a herbal medicine in the East and have many medicinal properties attributed to them. They are used to treat all manor of stomach complaints from wind to diarrhea and they are said to help with indigestion and even morning sickness.
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