Thought to have first been cultivated in ancient Persia, cumin has been used as everything from a seasoning — much like salt or pepper — to a preservative in ancient Egyptian mummification.
There are several different varieties of the spice, but the best-known is green (which becomes a familiar brown when dried) and a smaller black version, popular in Persian and Indian cuisine. Cumin doesn’t like to play alone, it prefers to mix and mingle with other ingredients and blends beautifully with different spices like cinnamon, turmeric, chilli and coriander.
My tip for getting the best out of the seeds is to dry fry them; this releases their oils and helps to maximise the flavour. Many cooks haven’t mastered the art of cumin, however; common misuse has turned some against it before they’ve learnt how to harness its flavour. While turmeric is the current golden child of spices — thanks in part to its supposed anti-inflammatory properties — cumin is said to have health properties of its own, including aiding digestion and acting as a natural decongestant.
Whether or not you buy into the health angle, cumin — both as seeds and in ground form — is worth getting to know from a flavour point of view. There are plenty of ways to incorporate it into your cooking, so there’s no excuse for the last jar you bought being older than one of your children. Try it with eggs, dairy, pumpkin, squash and root vegetables as well as red meat, game and cured meats and sausages.
Add a heaped tsp of toasted cumin seeds to a bread dough mixture (grated cheddar also marries beautifully with the spice here) to make wonderfully aromatic loaves and rolls. Scatter a few on top, too.
Grind 1 tsp of cumin seeds to a powder and stir into stews, soups, pies, chilli and stir-fries for a bold flavour. Don’t be afraid to add a little chilli and cinnamon to the mix, too — cumin works well with contrasting spices.
Combine 1 tsp each of lightly crushed cumin seeds and finely chopped fresh parsley or coriander, with the zest of 1 lemon, salt and pepper. Mix with 150g of softened butter and chill. Spread over pork chops, game and roasted veg.
Add a small amount (to taste) of lightly crushed cumin seeds to punch-up vinaigrettes or lemon-based salad dressings — especially good in salads that contain root veg or salty cheese. Or simply use as a marinade for olives.
Grind 2 tsp each of toasted cumin seeds and sea salt flakes (ground rock salt gives a wildly different result) until smooth. Use as a dipping salt for slow-cooked lamb shoulder, just like the Moroccans do.
Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food