Cumin has been in use since ancient times. Seeds excavated at the Syrian site Tell ed-Der have been dated to the second millennium BC. They have also been reported from several New Kingdom levels of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
Originally cultivated in Iran and Mediterranean region, cumin is mentioned in the Bible in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:27) and the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). The ancient Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin was also used heavily in ancient Roman cuisine. During the Middle Ages, cumin fell out of favour in Europe, except in Spain and Malta. It was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. There are several different types of cumin but the most famous ones are black and green cumin which are both used in Persian cuisine.
It has since returned to favour in parts of Europe. Today, it is mostly grown in Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, India, Syria, Mexico, Chile, and China. The plant occurs as a rare casual in the British Isles, mainly in southern England, but the frequency of its occurrence has declined greatly. According to the Botanical Society of the British Isles' most recent Atlas, there has been only one confirmed record since 2000.
Confusion with other spices
Cumin is sometimes confused with caraway (Carum carvi), another umbelliferous spice. Cumin is however hotter to the taste, lighter in color, and larger. Many European languages do not distinguish clearly between the two though. Many Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages referring to cumin as "Roman caraway". Examples include Czech: kmín – caraway, římský kmín -cumin; Polish: kminek – caraway, kmin rzymski – cumin; Hungarian: kömény – caraway, római kömény – cumin. Finnish: kumina – caraway, roomankumina – cumin, although sometimes also called juustokumina, cheese caraway. In Swedish and Norwegian, caraway is called kummin while cumin is spiskummin, from the word spise, to eat, while in German, Kümmel stands for caraway and Kreuzkümmel denotes cumin. In Icelandic, caraway is kúmen, while cumin is kúmín. In Romanian, chimen is caraway, while chimion is cumin.
The distantly related Bunium persicum and the unrelated Nigella sativa are both sometimescalled black cumin
What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are pungent, potent little things with the ability to significantly change the trajectory of a dish. They are featured prominently in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines. Back in the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and most accessible – condiments for the spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers going off to war with loaves of cumin bread in their satchels for good luck. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, and it was used extensively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, and just about everyone in that region. It is not to be confused with caraway, which is actually called “cumin” in multiple European languages. They are somewhat similar in taste and appearance, but cumin is spicier and, in my opinion, tastier.
As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more. Note that many of the surnames in the following PubMed links are of Indian origin. Cumin, along with ghee and a host of other spices, played a prominent role in the Ayurvedic medicinal traditions, and I love seeing a lot of these supposedly “old wives’ tales” get preliminary scientific justification:
The jury is still out on whether dietary AGEs are worrisome, but it’s clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger concern, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective at reducing blood glucose and AGE production than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug.
Cumin’s anti-glycation properties proved useful in another study, in which diabetic rats were able to stave off cataracts after oral dosing with cumin powder.
Another study found that cumin extract reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, and pancreatic inflammatory markers in diabetic rats. It also prevented excessive weight loss. Again, it beat out glibenclamide.
Oral doses (25, 50, 100, 200 mg/kg) of cumin on consecutive days improved the immune response of mice with compromised immune systems due to restraint-induced stress. These effects were marked by a reduction in elevated cortisol and adrenal gland size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
An extract of cumin had anti-osteoporotic effects on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Cumin-dosed (orally, 1 mg/kg) osteoporotic rats had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
Cumin protected the livers of rats from ethanol- and rancid sunflower oil-induced toxicity.
One study even seems to suggest a role for cumin in weaning addicts off of opiates - here – by reducing tolerance (yeah, it could increase the subjective high, but it would mean less product was required) and dependence.
Antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “potent.” It’s unclear whether the same holds true for cumin in other countries, but I imagine it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed, if possible, as ground cumin (and anything, really) will be more exposed to the air and thus more liable to degrade. If you’ve got ground cumin, store it in the fridge in an airtight, sealed container. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron skillet over low heat for a couple minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let them burn; you’ll know it when you smell it, because it’s somewhat reminiscent of a fine body odor), but one study found that microwaving whole cumin seeds actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditional oven roasting. Go figure.
So, what can you do with the stuff besides make curries ؟
Curries are great and expected places to insert cumin, of course, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to act as a replacement for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it, so why not treat it like that yourself and add it to things you’d otherwise never think to? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade stock for a nice hot drink before bed. If you’d eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not for any health benefits, necessarily, but just for a nice change of pace. My latest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just did a batch of bone-in short ribs like that with homemade beef broth, as a slight alteration of Richard Nikoley’s excellent short rib recipe, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it.