Cumin seed was once called the best of all condiments by the Roman naturalist Pliny. Romans are said to have substituted it for pepper, making it into a paste that was spread on bread. Some cumin users even claimed that it kept lovers faithful and chickens from straying. The Romans also thought that fumes from burning cumin seed turned the skin pallid. One group of Plinys students took to using cumin in this way to give the impression that they were working as hard as their mentor. By the Middle Ages, cumin seed had become one of the most popular spices in Europe and Britain. From the 16th century on, however, it seems to have gradually lost favor in Europe, perhaps replaced by caraway. Germans, of course, still use cumin, along with caraway, in kümmel liqueur, and the Dutch make a delicious cumin-flavored cheese. But cumin has never regained the status it once enjoyed on the continent. The Middle East, North Africa and India, on the other hand, remained loyal to cumin and made it an important element of many classic dishes, from couscous to curries. One of cumins most popular uses worldwide is in rice and bean dishes. When the New World was "discovered," cumin became a staple seasoning of peasant fare throughout Latin America. Testifying to cumins "Latin connection" is the fact that cumin-seed packages in the United States usually include the Spanish word for cumin, comino, on the label. With the rising popularity of Southwestern, Mexican and Indian cooking in recent years in the United States, cumin use has shown substantial growth. Its the essential flavoring and aromatic factor in chili powder and a staple in curry powder. Texans like to add even more cumin to their chili powder for that "real" chili flavor. Incidentally, the pronunciation for cumin thats most prevalent in this country, and the one recognized by the American Spice Trade Association, is "kumin," not "kewmin" as is sometimes heard. What is cumin? Cumin seed is the dried fruit of Cuminum cyminum, an herbaceous annual of the carrot, or parsley, family. The term cumino dulce is sometimes heard in Europe, but this refers to anise rather than cumin. Cumin is native to Egypt and the shores of the Mediterranean, and has been widely cultivated in a band beginning in the Western Mediterranean and extending through the fertile crescent of the Middle East to India. However, the cumin plant adapts to both warm and cool climates, and as a result is grown to some extent in countries all over the world. In many places, domestic demand leaves little for export, but countries that have not had much to export in the past could well boost production and become tomorrows leading sources. Cumin seed is quite uniformly elliptical and deeply furrowed, looking somewhat like caraway seed, to which it is related, but without caraways characteristic curved shape. Cumin-seed color is pale green to tan, but the shading changes somewhat according to source. When mature, the plants are cut, dried and then threshed to obtain the seed. Types of cumin seed Iranian. Historically, Iran has supplied a major portion of U.S. imports of cumin seed. Unlike other producing countries, it has always exported almost all of its output. The crop was entirely cultivated and of good quality. However, political differences between the United States and Iran have led to decreased cumin seed imports and today the United States imports virtually no Iranian cumin seed. Indian. India is the worlds largest producer of cumin seed, but it is also the largest consumer. The flavor and aroma characteristics of Indian and Iranian cumins are quite similar. The Indian industry markets its products in several grades. The best available in this country is designated "prime quality." The product is golden brown in color with an essential oil content ranging from 3% to 5%. Pakistani, Turkish and Syrian. Depending on the year, the United States imports varying amounts of cumin seed from a number of other countries. Pakistan, Syria and Turkey are fairly constant suppliers. Cumin from these sources can vary from about 2% to 5% essential oil, with a flavor character that differs slightly from Indian seed. Buying and using cumin seed The higher cumins oil content, the more intense its flavor. Its becoming common for spice companies to put less emphasis on origin and more on oil content when selling cumin to industrial customers. Flavor and cleanliness are the keys to quality. The seeds are rarely used whole in this country, except in retail packs, so appearance and uniformity are not usually prime concerns. For ground cumin seed, a typical specification calls for 95% to pass through a U.S. Standard 30 mesh screen. Most of the cumin seed used in the United States goes into Mexican-style foods, Indian-style dishes and chili powder. However, its also an excellent spice for rice dishes, stuffings, sauces and marinades, and is particularly well suited to Middle Eastern dishes. Additionally, cumin can be used in breads and even some sweet baked goods. Its usage in cheese parallels that of caraway, but the result is distinctly different. Handling cumin seed Cumin both ground and whole should be stored in a cool, dry place. Excessive heat volatilizes and dissipates its aromatic essential oils, and high humidity tend to cake the ground product. Date containers when they arrive, so that older stock is used first. Store the containers off the floor and away from outside walls to minimize dampness. Tightly close all spice containers after each use, because prolonged exposure to air causes some loss of flavor and aroma. Under good storage conditions, the aroma and flavor qualities for which cumin is prized, are retained long enough to meet any normal requirements of food manufacturing. Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.
Back to top 3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
E-Mail: [email protected]