Up-to-Date Flavors from an Ancient Spice

Add flair to your daily fare with the great taste of cumin.


Photography by Anybody Goes

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One of the oldest and most popular seasonings in the world, cumin has been used since antiquity. It is mentioned in the Bible (in Isaiah and Matthew) and in the writings of Hippocrates and Dioscorides, and has been used historically in foods, beverages, medicines and perfumes.


Cumin originated in the Nile River Valley. The ancient Egyptians employed a combination of cumin, myrrh and lotus flowers to treat headaches and used the seeds to flavor fish and meat, aid digestion and as an essential herb in mummifying the dead.

From Egypt, cumin spread to neighboring North Africa, the Mediterranean and east to Asia. The Moors (Muslims of Northwest Africa) introduced the seed to Spain after conquering the country in the eighth century a.d. From there, it spread throughout Europe, to Mexico and eventually to the rest of North America.


Cumin bears slender, branched stems finely divided into long, blue-green linear leaves. Cumin’s white or pink flowers appear as stalked compound umbels (think upside-down umbrellas) with four to six rays, each about 1/3 inch long.

The elliptically shaped seeds possess overlapping oil channels responsible for the seed’s strong odor and pungent taste.

Although the plant prefers hot climates, it will survive as far north as Manitoba, Canada, or Norway, grown under glass in the spring. It thrives in sandy, loamy, well-drained soil.

To grow cumin, plant the seeds in abundance, 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, fairly close together. Plant in blocks rather than rows, so flowering plants can support each other to prevent their heavy seed heads from falling over.

Plant in October or November for an early spring harvest, or in spring for fruits in June or July. Use row covers until all chance of frost has passed. Water well.

Begin harvesting the plants individually as the heads ripen — about 120 days after planting — when the seeds turn brown and dry and crackle when pinched between your thumb and forefinger. Cut off ripe seed heads, hang over a catch cloth and allow the seeds to dry completely. To thresh (remove hulls), beat the seed-filled cloth bags against a hard surface to loosen the outer layer. Sift through a wire mesh hardware cloth to remove the chaff, then store the seeds in an airtight container.


Cumin is used in cuisines the world over, from European to Middle Eastern to Tex-Mex. Four classic spice blends depend upon cumin: chili powder, garam masala, curry powder and dhania jeeru.

German cooks use cumin to pickle cabbage to make sauerkraut, and burn it to smoke meats and cheeses, such as Munster. (Dutch Leydon cheese also depends on cumin.) Portuguese sausages and spiced cheeses also include this spice.

Chefs and home cooks consider cumin essential for making authentic chili con carne, enchiladas with chile sauce, refried beans, tamales, Moroccan lamb dishes, tagines, flavored couscous, Indian vegetable curries, rice dishes and legume dishes, such as dahl.

Kümmel, a sweet liqueur flavored with cumin and fennel, was popular in the 16th century. It has German, Dutch and Russian roots. In India, cumin is used to make a refreshing yogurt drink called a lassi.

For the best flavor, buy whole cumin seeds and powder them in an electric coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices. To accentuate the flavor, lightly toast and stir the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for three minutes, then cool before grinding. Store in an airtight jar at room temperature.


Historically, herbalists and holistic physicians used cumin to stimulate the appetite and digestion, to detoxify, to relieve gas, pain and inflammation, and to rid humans and animals of worms.

The ancient Greeks used cumin oil to beautify the complexion, as an aphrodisiac and to remedy impotence. In India, cooks traditionally prepared dishes with cumin to relieve nausea in pregnant women and to increase lactation in postpartum mothers. In the Middle East, alternative healers recommend cumin oil to treat heart disease, high blood pressure, congestion and respiratory disorders.

Prepared as a poultice, cumin can help reduce swelling of the breasts and testicles. The powdered seeds, mixed with clay or flour and water, can be applied topically to relieve arthritic joints.

Recent research supports the age-old use of cumin as a nervine. A study published in the Journal of Food Sciences found cumin oil rich in rare substances required for the development, repair and functioning of brain and nerve tissue and liver function.

Cumin oil also contains trace amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorus, fiber, fat, carbohydrate and protein. The plant’s volatile oils possess potent antifungal, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, anti-toxic, antioxidant, antispasmodic and diuretic properties, according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless (Element Books, 1995).

Multiple studies reported in the journal Nutrition and Cancer reveal that cumin oil, given in relatively small doses, can increase the liver’s production of glutathione-S-transferase by as much as 700 percent. This enzyme helps the body detoxify cancer-causing chemicals. Another study proved cumin’s ability to increase the liver’s output of bile (crucial for digestion of fats) by as much as 300 percent.

A study conducted at the Cancer Institute, Madras, in India, found that cumin could block 83 percent of the chromosomal damage induced by cancer-causing chemicals.


For therapeutic use, start with two or three drops of cumin oil per day, mixed into juice (try tomato or V-8 juice), milk or water. Gradually increase your intake to 20 drops twice a day. Or fill small gelatin capsules with the oil and take it once or twice daily with meals. For best results, take cumin with meals that contain fat, to stimulate bile flow, which you need to absorb the cumin oil. Buy high quality, food-grade oil of cumin for therapeutic use.

It is never a good idea to apply large amounts of essential oils, which are very concentrated, to your skin. However, in small amounts or diltued, you can apply cumin oil directly to your skin as a beauty aid, to relieve pain and inflammation, or for antiseptic or antifungal purposes. Be warned: You will smell like cumin.


Serves 6

These crispy spice-coated salmon fillets go well with a green salad or steamed broccoli and cauliflower.

This dish also may be prepared with chicken. You can prepare the spice rub and barbecue sauce a few days ahead.

Six (6-ounce) salmon fillets, each 1 inch thick (about 21/4 pounds total)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
11/2 to 2 tablespoons coconut oil or ghee
2/3 cup Moroccan Barbecue Spice Mix (at right)
21/3 cups Moroccan Barbecue Sauce (at right), optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse fish, pat dry with paper towel and rest on a platter.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in each of two (10-inch) ovenproof cast-iron or heavy stainless steel skillets (or use 2 tablespoons oil in one 12- or 13-inch chef pan) over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, season salmon with pepper and sea salt. Sprinkle fish with half the barbecue spice mix, turning to coat all sides. Add more as needed to cover; press firmly so an even layer adheres.

When oil is hot, add 3 salmon fillets, skin side up, to each medium skillet or all 6 pieces to one large skillet. Sauté for 2 minutes, then turn skin side down. Brown the second side for 2 minutes; quickly transfer skillet(s) to preheated oven.

Roast for 10 to 12 minutes or until skin becomes crisp and you easily can pierce the fish with a thin-bladed knife. Remove skillet(s) with thick oven mitts (don’t touch those handles). Serve with Moroccan Barbecue Sauce, if desired. Refrigerate leftovers and use within 2 days.


Makes about 2/3 cup

Liberally rub this mouth-watering spice mix over salmon, pork, chicken or beef before cooking, or sauté it with onions, greens or cabbage with sea salt and black pepper.

To shell whole cardamom seeds, place them on a cutting board; rock over them with a heavy skillet or chef knife; pull away and discard the shell fragments, then measure the black seeds. To skip this step, buy shelled cardamom seeds in the bulk spice section of natural food stores.

1/4 cup whole coriander seeds
1/4 cup whole fennel seeds
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds, shelled
2 teaspoons whole cloves

Combine spice seeds in a dry, medium-size skillet over moderate heat. Stir until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Pour seeds into a shallow bowl to cool.

Finely powder the spices in a spice-dedicated coffee grinder (not the same one you use for coffee), or using a mortar and pestle. Pour the powder into an airtight jar, cover and store at room temperature for up to 6 months.


Makes 21/3 cups

Slather this delicious sauce over meats before cooking, or use it at the table like ketchup, over meat, tempeh or steamed broccoli. Double the recipe, if desired. It freezes well.

Look for Harissa, a Tunisian hot sauce, in Indian grocery stores or try one of the substitutions mentioned. For a milder flavor, replace hot sauce with an additional tablespoon of honey.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil
1 cup minced onions
1 teaspoon sea salt or 2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce (halve if using salted broth, below)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large or 2 small shallots, minced (about 1/4 cup)
11/2 to 2 tablespoons Moroccan Barbecue Spice Mix (see Page 30)
1 tablespoon Harissa hot sauce, or 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper, or to taste
One (6-ounce) can tomato paste
11/4 cups water or broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or 3 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon stevia powder
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey or 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses (optional, but good)

Heat oil in a 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and stir until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add sea salt or tamari, garlic and shallots, and stir for 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and whisk until smooth.

Bring to a low boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer with lid ajar or cover with a spatter screen, and stir periodically, until mixture thickens, 20 to 30 minutes.

Pour sauce into a wide-mouth glass jar. Cover and refrigerate. Use within 2 weeks or freeze.


Serves 6

Kale and collards, some of the most nutritious greens you can eat, pair well with the powerful properties of cumin. Onions sweeten the dish, so don’t leave them out. The amount of greens listed below may sound excessive until you strip away the stems and see how the leaves shrink in cooking. Leftovers taste great served at room temperature; I always prepare enough to serve a couple of days in a row.

2 pounds (2 large or 4 medium-size bunches) kale or collard greens
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, ghee or unrefined coconut oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced into half-moons, about 2 cups
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt or 2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce (halve if using salted broth)
1/2 to 3/4 cup water or broth
Hot sauce, optional

Wash kale or collard leaves to remove all traces of sand or dirt. Strip leaves from stems, discarding stems. Tear leaves into bite-size pieces, or stack and roll up like newspaper and cut into 1-inch-wide strips, then crosswise into 1-inch squares.

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet or 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, stir and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, pepper, cumin and sea salt or tamari. Stir and add greens and 1/2 cup water or broth.

Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, until vibrant green and tender, 10 to 15 minutes. If pan becomes dry before greens are done, add 1/4 cup liquid, or as needed, and cook until tender. Remove from heat and serve, with hot sauce on the side if desired, or chill for later. Use within 2 days or freeze.

Variation: Replace black pepper with ground chipotle (smoked, dried jalapeño pepper).

Recipes adapted from The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook by Rachel Albert-Matesz and Don Matesz (Planetary Press, 2004).­