Up-to-Date Flavors from an Ancient Spice

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

| December/January 2005

  • Photography by Anybody Goes

  • Dawna Edwards

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.

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