Cumin

Cumin

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

Cumin seeds pack a powerful punch. Their earthy, savoury aroma reminds us immediately of Indian curries, but crunching them between the teeth releases a strong, spicy, almost aniseedy flavour, more reminiscent of caraway.

Cumin is indeed a member of the same family of umbillifers as caraway (and carrot and parsley), but whereas caraway is used in northern European cuisines as a flavouring for rye breads and smoked cheeses, cumin has its roots firmly in the East. The plant is believed to be native to Egypt, but has been cultivated around the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia and India for many thousands of years, and is one of the most ancient spices used in cooking.

Cumin was certainly grown in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs, where it was used in the embalming process, as well as to flavour many savoury dishes, and it remains a favourite spice there today. The ancient Greeks and Romans probably imported cumin from Egypt, and also used it widely. While they enjoyed eating it, the ancient Greeks also considered cumin a symbol of meanness – a miserly person was said to be a ‘cumin splitter’. In ancient Rome cumin was often used interchangeably with pepper.

The Romans were probably responsible for the eventual spread of cumin westwards, and by medieval times it was popular both in European kitchens and in early medicines as an antispasmodic and as a cure for flatulence! Interestingly, the faith in cumin’s carminative qualities prevails in the Middle East today, where a pinch of ground cumin is often added to pulses while cooking.

Although cumin has rather fallen from favour in European cooking, it remains indispensable in the cuisines of North Africa, the Middle East and of course India. Its savoury, spicy flavour is added to all sorts of meat and poultry dishes, rice dishes, soups and stews. The seeds are typically dry-roasted before being ground to a fine powder, which further intensifies their pungency.

In Morocco cumin is an essential ingredient in chermoula, the hot and spicy seasoning paste used in many fish dishes. Cumin is also rubbed onto grilled lamb and used to season minced lamb for making kifta kebabs (brochettes). Throughout North Africa, a popular street food is hard-boiled eggs dunked in little dishes of cumin salt. The Egyptian spice mix dukkah, served with bread and olive oil, is also fragrant with roasted cumin. Middle Easterners use cumin and ground coriander seeds as the basis for many spice mixes. Cumin is often sprinkled onto onions and used to garnish rice and lentil dishes, or mixed with garlic and rubbed as a paste onto grilled meats.

Selecting and storing cumin

There are three different kinds of cumin seeds – amber, white and black. The amber seed is the only one commonly available in supermarkets. This is also the variety most widely used in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking. White and black cumin seeds are usually only to be found in Asian or Middle Eastern stores. Black cumin is considered superior to the others as it is rarer and has a milder refined flavour, with smaller seeds. Naturally enough, it is also more expensive. Black cumin seeds are used on flat breads, especially in Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon. In Lebanon they are also added to the brine in which haloumy cheese is stored.

Don’t confuse black cumin seeds with nigella seeds, which are quite different. Nigella seeds are also tiny and black, and they have a strong peppery flavour. They are most commonly used in Indian cooking, especially in pickles and in spice mixes, and sprinkled over Indian flat breads.

Cumin seeds are available as whole seeds and as a ready-ground powder. Unlike many other spices, ready-ground cumin retains its potency pretty well – although as it ages you will have to increase the amount you use. For a full-on blast of flavour though, it is better to use whole seeds, roasted first and then ground with a mortar and pestle or in a clean grinder. As for all spices, buy cumin in small quantities and store it in a tightly sealed container in a dark, cool cupboard.

Using cumin

Cumin is potent, so it should be used sparingly. Recipes often suggest what looks like a ridiculously small amount of cumin, but a little really does go a long way. If you are unfamiliar with cumin, a good starting point is between one-eighth and one-quarter of a teaspoon of ground cumin, or half a teaspoon of the whole seeds for every four serves.

Dry-roasting cumin seeds reduces their faint bitterness and brings out their nutty, savoury taste. To dry-roast cumin seeds, put them in a heavy frying-pan on a medium heat and toss them around over the heat for few moments until they have darkened and begun to release their aroma. Tip them into a mortar and grind them up by hand, or pour larger amounts into a clean coffee grinder.

Recipes in this Chapter

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