Cumin: International Taste Maker

Second only to pepper in popularity, cumin jazzes up everything from curries to quesadillas

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Cooks and cumin go way back—

something like 6,000 years. Use of

the spice was common throughout

the Mediterranean basin long before

spice routes brought more exotic

seasonings such as black pepper,
cinnamon and ginger into the area.

“Achilles and Helen of Troy,

if they ever existed, would have

known cumin’s flavor,” says Jack

Turner, author of Spice: The History

of a Temptation

But cumin isn’t just one of the oldest

spices around; it’s also one of the most

widely used. Over the years, er,

millennia, this distinctive, pungent seed

spread beyond the Mediterranean

to India, Asia, Northern Europe,

Mexico and Latin America. “Still, many

people associate cumin mainly with

Eastern cuisine, and its popularity

in countries such as India is a reminder

that traffic along the spice routes

and the exchange of recipes went both

ways,” Turner adds.

Cumin has played such a big role

in India’s culinary heritage that it feels

like a native seasoning. “It’s very

important in Indian cooking,” says

Madhur Jaffrey, author of Madhur

Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian: More Than

650 Meatless Recipes from Around the

. The strong, smoky taste is

an integral part of curries, vegetable

stews and chutneys. And no masala

dabba (a round stainless steel box

containing seven spices that Indian

cooks keep by the stove) would be

complete without both ground cumin

and whole seeds. Northern Indians

even cultivate their own variety of the

spice, black cumin, which has a

stronger, more complex flavor than

regular cumin.

But most North Americans know

cumin through Mexican cooking.

At Casa Tina, a Mexican restaurant

in Dunedin, FL, that specializes

in vegetarian dishes, chef/owner Javier

Avila uses cumin in 15 different sauces

and every batch of rice.

“A little cumin wakes up all the

flavors—even a small dash in

guacamole can make a big difference,”

he says. Avila is also a fan of pairing

cumin with tropical fruits. “My mother

used to roast whole seeds and then

sprinkle them over papayas with a little

lime and salt. And I love mangoes

sprinkled with ground cumin and

cayenne—there’s another example of

the endless ways you can use it.”

Although whole or ground cumin

can be used straight from the jar, most

chefs recommend toasting it 1 to 2

minutes in a dry nonstick skillet to

intensify the aroma and taste. Or just

fry the whole seeds in hot oil for a few

seconds—an Indian cooking technique

called tarka. One of Jaffrey’s favorite

recipes involves cooking cumin this

way, then adding potatoes. “All you

have to do is pop whole cumin

seeds into hot oil, then stir in boiled

potatoes,” she explains. “Children absolutely love it just like that, or you

can make it fancier by adding ginger

and tomatoes.”

Even if you’re not going the ethnic

route for dinner tonight, a dash of

ground cumin can do wonders for bean

dishes, eggs, hummus or even a can of

tomato soup. Cumin is also good with

legumes and leafy greens; it gives both

a rich, complex flavor that tames any

bitterness. Whole seeds add depth and

texture when stirred into soft cheeses,

sandwich spreads and salad dressings

or sprinkled on top of dinner rolls

before baking.

So take a cue from cooks around the

world and keep supplies of both the

whole and ground spice on hand. That

way, you, too, can carry on an age-old

culinary tradition just by sprinkling on

one or stirring in the other.


Potatoes Tarka (Potatoes with Cumin Seeds)

Serves 4Vegan30 minutes or fewer

This simple Indian cooking technique

transforms boiled potatoes. If the

cumin seeds cook too long and burn

(they will look black and lose their

fragrance), just start over with fresh oil

and seeds before adding the potatoes.

1 lb. new potatoes, quartered

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

1 Tbs. cumin seeds

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄4 tsp. pepper

Place potatoes in large saucepan with

enough salted water to cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer

5 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.

Drain well.

Heat oil in nonstick skillet over

medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds,

and cook 15 seconds, or until fragrant

and brown. Stir in potatoes, salt and

pepper. Adjust seasonings, and serve



(0.5G SAT. FAT); 23G CARB; 0MG CHOL; 371MG


Ever since an Indian neighbor gave her

a masala dabba for Christmas, Vegetarian

Times food editor Mary Margaret

Chappell has kept cumin by the stove

along with the salt and pepper.

Trending on Vegetarian Times