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Hidden Punch: Cumin’s Untold Story

Chili, as in the illustrious American dish chili con carne, is more redolent of cumin than chili. Look at a supermarket container of chili powder and you will see cumin listed as an ingredient. For all its importance, few of us know much about the forgotten spice.

Cumin, I learned, is a flowering plant in the same family, umbelliferae, as dill, fennel, coriander, parsley, and anise, among others. They have in common an umbrella-shaped cluster of blossoms atop a tall stalk. Cumin, which bears white or rose-colored flowers, packs its aroma in its seeds, which are actually fruits. Cumin’s robust smell comes from the intense oils in the seeds.

Where did this spice originate? Most scholars agree that it is a Mediterranean native, unlike spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom, which were grown in the East. Probably first grown along the banks of the Nile, it was one of the spices used to scent the mummies of Egyptian royalty. A late Roman cookbook calls for “fairly generous cumin” to inject zip into a sauce of pepper, mint, honey, vinegar, bay leaf, and other seasonings, for cooking oysters and shellfish. The recipe came from the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

For readers of the Bible, cumin was more than a spice. It was a crop that sprang from the soil. After harvesting, dried plants were “beaten out with rods,” says a verse in Isaiah. Presumably threshing was done to extract the seeds.

The Greeks and Romans, who were actively engaged in the spice trade, were impressed with cumin. The Greek writer Theophrastus marveled at its abundant growth: “Cumin has the most fruits of any plants.” But, he cautioned, “when people are sowing it, they must curse and slander it if they want it to be healthy and prolific.” One can only imagine what demon the naturalist believed lurked in its seed.

The Romans looked at the plant with awe. The naturalist Pliny praised cumin for its taste: “Of all the seasonings which gratify a fastidious taste, cumin is the most agreeable.” The Romans spiced up their bread by spreading it with a paste made from cumin. Its scent was so intense, many believed, that cumin could speed up conception if smelled during sex.

It was as much a medicine and cosmetic as it was food for the ancients. The Romans regarded it as a digestif that could soothe the stomach. It could also, they believed, induce a pallor in the face, a curious property that was highly valued. Students, according to Pliny, would apply a cumin-based oil to their skin to make their teachers believe they were working feverishly.

Both Greeks and Romans considered cumin a symbol of greed. A person who would “divide a cumin seed,” scholar John Ayto explains, was demonstrably selfish. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was nicknamed “Cumin” because of his avaricious nature.

From the Mediterranean, cumin traveled eastward. It was adopted by the Persians, who perked up their rice with it. Their warriors probably transplanted cumin to India, whose people embraced it enthusiastically. Jeera, the Hindi name of the spice, is related to the Persian zeera. Both words, botanist George Watt suggests, allude to cumin’s digestive benefits.

Cumin’s trek continued. Moorish invaders from North Africa, it is assumed, introduced the spice to Spain. Spain, in turn, disseminated it in its colonies in the Americas. Latin dishes like black bean soup and tamales are invigorated with cumin. Cowboys in the America Southwest picked it wild to use in chili.

It is in India that jeera’s gifts were most heavily exploited. In his country, Kiraukumae B. Kamble, an Indian chef who once lived in Washington, told me, cumin is curative. “Food is medicine,” the Mumbai native, who was chef to India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for 10 years, explained. Cumin is a tonic for the eyes and stomach and, curiously, for the tongue, the chef expounded: “If you’re sick and have no appetite, put jeera powder on your tongue. Your tongue is now fresh.” A mixture of garlic, onion, ginger, and jeera can “make you strong.”

I listened raptly as the chef spun out some recipes for this, one of his favorite flavorings. For two portions of cumin potatoes, he told me, put a little oil in a pan and fry cumin seeds for five or six minutes until they reach a brown color. Meanwhile, boil three potatoes. When they are boiled, add potatoes to the frying pan. Sprinkle a little salt and turmeric on them and fry the potatoes, with the cumin seeds, for six or seven minutes. Finally, sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve.

To make dahia jeera, a cuminy yogurt, the chef instructed, first roast two teaspoons of cumin seeds in a very hot frying pan until they are dark brown. Then lay them on a plate. When they are cool enough, take your hand and crush the seeds into a powder. Then add the powder to a bowl of 16 ounces of yogurt, mix well, and add a pinch of salt. Sprinkle coriander leaves on top and enjoy.

In Indian cooking, there is a plethora of cumin dishes. There is also cumin rice, a cumin-infused drink, and “cumin everything,” chef Kamble pointed out.


Where to Find It

Ethiopian spice purveyors like Black Lion Market (3500 14th St., NW; 202-747-0044), Dukem (1114-18 U St., NW; 202-667-8735), and Habeshe Market (1919 19th St., NW; 202-232-1919) typically carry cumin and a host of other flavorings.

Jyoti (2433 18th St., NW;202-518-5892), an Adams Morgan Indian restaurant, features cumin in cauliflower, chickpea, and mixed vegetable curries. Cumin is a key part of the Indian spice blend, garam masala.

Mi Cuba Café (1424 Park Rd., NW; 202-813-3489), a Cuban restaurant in Columbia Heights. employs cumin (comino in Spanish) in many of its plates. You can savorit in such Cuban classics as picadillo and ropa vieja.