Cumin, a member of the Apiacea family, is a flowering plant grown natively in the eastern Mediterranean region and east of India. The plant’s flowers are small and can be either white or pink in color. It produces a tiny, compressed fruit containing a single seed similar to fennel, but smaller in size and slightly darker in color.
- India -jeera, zeera or jira
- South India (Kannada)- Jeerige
- South India (Tamil) - jeeragam
- South India (Telugu) - jilakara
- Iran and Central Asia - zira
- Turkey - kimyon
- Northwestern China - ziran
- Arabic - al-kamuwn
- Ethiopia - kemun
- Pakistan - Zeera
- Indonesia - jintan (or jinten)
Botanical Name and Descriptin
Cumin or Cuminum cyminum belongs to the Umbelliferae plant family. It is a tender annual that grows 6-12 inches or 15-30 cm tall. The leaves are slightly frangrant and thread like, white or pinkish flowers appear in summer and are followed by aromaic seeds. These are similar in appearance to caraway seeds, except they are bristly.
Native to Egypt, cumin has also been cultivated for thousands of years in the Middle East, India, China and Mediterranean countries, where it has played an important role as a food and medicine and has been a cultural symbol with varied attributes. The Bible includes cumin as a dual treasure, for it is mentioned both as a seasoning for soup and as a legal tender to pay mandatory tithes to the local priest. In ancient Egypt, cumin was also an ingredient used to mummify pharaohs.
Ancient Greek and Roman kitchens highly honoured cumin seeds as a culinary seasoning. The rise of cumin's reputation was partially as a result of it being a useful alternative to the more expendive rare black pepper spice.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, cumin was one of the most common spices used and became recognised as a reminder of love and devotion. Cumin was thought to possess enough power to stop livestock, and possibly a spouse, from wandering away. As a result, guests carried cumin in their pockets when attending wedding ceremonies. When sent off to war, the wives of married soldiers baked cumin bread to be taken by their beloved. Arabic tradtions also celebrate a mixture made of ground cumin, pepper, and honey, which was believed to possess aphrodisiac properties.
While maintaining an important role in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, the popularity of cumin in Europe declined after the Middle Ages. In recent times, cumin and a number of other culinary herbs have become popular for many diverse uses and cuisines.
Cumin seeds have traditionally been noted to be of benefit to the digestive system, and scientific research is beginning to bear out cumin's age old reputation. Research in animals has indicated that cumin may stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes, important factors in proper digestion and nutrient assimilation. As with other carminative spices, cumin's digestive stimulating effects are due to its content of volatile oils.
Cumin seeds may also have anticancer properties. In one study, cumin was shown to protect laboratory animals from developing stomach or liver tumours. This cancer-protective effect may be due to cumin's potent free-radical scavenging abilities, as well as the ability it has shown to enhance the liver's detoxification enzymes.
How to select and store
- As with other dried spices, choose organically grown dried cumin whenever possible, since organically grown herbs are much less likely to have been irradiated.
- Buy whole cumin seeds rather than powder as the powder loses its flavour very quickly.
- Both the powder and the whole seeds should be kept in a sealed glass container in a cool, dark place. Ground cumin alsts for about six months lilke this and the whole seeds last about a year.
Tips for Use
To bring out the fragrance and flavour of cumin, it should be lightly roasted on a griddle. Cumin is a great flavourant to rice, lentils, or any kind of legume.
Grows in light, well-drained soil in sheltered, sunny sites. Should be sown in late spring in a warm situation.