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 Globe. 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 4 * Vegan * 30 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.
COO-MIN OR CUE-MIN? BOTH PRONUNCIATIONS ARE CORRECT.
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.
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