Cumin is a low-growing annual herb of the Nile Valley but is cultivated in the Mediterranean region, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, India, China and Palestine from very early times. Pliny is said to have considered it the best appetizer of all condiments. During the middle ages it was in very common use.
History of Cumin
All the old herbalists of the 16th and the 17th centuries described and extolled cumin. In Europe it is extensively cultivated in Malta and Sicily, and you can find mature seed as far north as Norway.
In America, today, the seed is cataloged by some seedsmen, but very little is grown. It is still used frequently today in Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean recipes.
Description of Cumin
The plant is very diminutive, rarely exceeding a height of six inches. Its stems, which branch freely from the base, bear only linear leaves and small lilac flowers in little groupings of 10 to 20 blossoms each. The six-ribbed, elongated “seeds” in appearance resemble caraway seeds but are straighter, lighter and larger. In formation they are like the double seeds of coriander, convex on one side and concave on the other. They bear long hairs, which fold up when the seed is dry.
The seeds come in three colors:
- Amberthe most common in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean markets.
- Blackis more common in the Asian markets and has a different sort of flavor than the amber or the white. It has more of a peppery taste.
- Whiteis more common in the Asian markets and is virtually interchangeable with the amber colored cumin seeds.
After the seed has been kept for two years it begins to lose its germinating power but will sprout reasonably well when three years old. Cumin is a rather easy herb to cultivate and grow.
Here are a few guidelines to help you in the growing of cumin.
- The best results come with the seed sown in warm ground.
- The seed is sown in drills about 15 inches apart where the plants are to remain.
- Except for keeping down the weeds, no further attention is necessary.
- The plants mature in about two months, at which point the stems are cut and dried in the shade.
Cooking with Cumin
Cumin is used as a culinary herb in ground form most commonly, but is also sometimes used in seed form. It is characterized by a peculiar, strong aromatic odor and a smoky taste:
- Cumin is used in France for flavoring pickles, pastry and soups.
- Cumin is a key ingredient in chili powders, which are popular in America and Europe.
- Kummel liqueur contains cumin as a spice.
- Once cumin is ground, it loses its potency rather quicklymore so than most culinary herbs.
- Is commonly used in Mexican dishes as a crusting to season meats.
- The seeds are used in India as an ingredient in curry powder.
- The toasted seeds can be eaten whole.
Kains, M.G. (1912). Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the Project Gutenberg Web site: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21414/21414-h/21414-h.htm#Page_59.