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Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Cumin

by Sandra Bowens

It’s in curries and chili.....


.....but it’s not yellow or red, it is cumin. Or comino, or cummin, an essential component of curry powders and chili powders. This earthy, strong flavored spice can be used interchangeably in the seed or powdered form.


Cumin has been known throughout history. It was listed as a medicinal plant in early Egypt, mentioned in both Testaments of the Bible and Pliny considered cumin to be "the best appetizer of all the condiments." It became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages when it was thought to keep lovers from fickleness and chickens from leaving their yard.


The plant Cuminum cyminum is a member of the parsley family and is native to the Mediterranean regions and northern Africa.  With foliage similar to dill, this annual will grow six to twelve inches high preferring a warm, but not dry, climate. Although we refer to cumin as a seed, it is actually the dried ripe fruit produced after the small pink flowers have formed. They are harvested when the plant begins to wither.  (Find seeds to grow your own cumin at Johnny's Seeds.)


Much of the cumin we use in the United States comes from India. Cumin can be found in the cuisines of many countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and, of course, India. For the highest quality, especially in the ground form, look for cumin in a specialty market featuring one of these cultures.

Other cultures have embraced the yellowish-brown seed as well. It is often used with fennel and juniper berries to pickle cabbage. The Dutch liqueur Kümmel is flavored with herbs and seeds that include cumin, fennel and caraway. The name Kümmel translates to the middle-high German word for cumin seed.


Rich in aroma and flavor, cumin compliments a wide variety of savory foods from cheese and breads to sausages and vegetables. In India cumin is used to flavor oils that are in turn used with meats, vegetables and beans. Toasting the whole seeds in a dry skillet enhances the flavor. For a crunchy spiced crust, try tossing whole cumin seed with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to press onto a pork tenderloin before grilling.  For variety or from necessity, cumin can be substituted for caraway.


Cumin is said to symbolize greed; perhaps this why it can take over a dish, use carefully.



Breakfast Tacos


1 roll (12 ounces) breakfast sausage

2 potatoes, peeled and diced

1 onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 dozen 8-inch flour tortillas, warmed

6 eggs, scrambled and kept warm

3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup salsa


In a wide skillet over medium heat, cook the sausage until no longer pink. Drain off excess fat, if necessary. Mix the potatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper into the sausage in the skillet. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.


Serve buffet style with tortillas, eggs, cheese, sour cream and salsa allowing each diner to fill their own tacos.


Makes 6 servings


Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.

Start with coriander, cumin, mustard, cayenne pepper, and turmeric, work a little magic and finish with more than fifty different, delicious Indian dishes.

What about Black Cumin?

Cuminum nigrum or black cumin is also known as Kala jeera. It is prized for its exotic floral flavor in the countries where it grows, North India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Black cumin is less bitter than and somewhat more peppery than regular cumin. It is a common ingredient in the seasoning blend garam masala. Black cumin seeds will be found in most well-stocked Indian food markets.

South of the border classics in less than 30 minutes? We can count on Rick Bayless to give us a roadmap to good food, fast.


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