Another member of the wide and varied parsley family, cumin is the dried fruit of the herb Cuminum cyminum. The plant grows one to two feet tall and produces oval, yellowish-brown seeds one-quarter inch long. All planting and harvesting are done by hand on small farms less than a half acre in size. It is available as whole seed and ground.
Cumin’s strong, earthy aroma lends a distinctive undertone to spice blends ranging from chili powder and Mexican adobo to Indian garam masala and Iranian advieh. In North Africa, the seeds are used to flavor meat stews, vegetable dishes and couscous. North Americans are most familiar with it as a player in Tex-Mex cooking. Cumin adds toasty warmth to a spicy black bean dip and is delicious in marinades and spice crusts for meat and poultry.
A fast-growing inhabitant of hot, dry climates, cumin is native to the Middle East. Today the major sources are India, China, Syria and Turkey.
BELIEVE IT…OR NOT
Make of it what you will, but in the Middle Ages, cumin was believed to keep both chickens and lovers from wandering. It was carried by wedding couples in hopes of ensuring a happy life. Ancient Babylonian and Assyrian physicians took a more serious view, using it in various medicines. The spice served as a food preservative for the early Greeks, who also kept containers of it on the dining table, much as we do black pepper today.
RECIPESClassic HummusAll-American Chili