Cumin seeds come from a bushy, flowering plant, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. India now produces and consumes the largest portion of the spice. Its wispy fronds are similar to those of its cousins, anise, carrot, and parsley. The seeds are harvested after the plant’s stalks have dried, and the fruit pods containing the seeds crack open. From this point, the cumin seeds are cleaned of any remaining dirt, and dried further before they’re packaged.
Cumin is ground or toasted before adding to food. On ancient Greek dinner tables, it was commonplace to find cumin positioned right next to salt.
There is also black cumin, called kala jeera, which is a relative of the brown cumin, but produces much smaller seeds that are thinner and less pungent. The black seeds are more reminiscent of fennel with a sweeter lemony caraway flavor.
Black cumin is not as widely used around the world in cooking as the brown seeds. They are more prevalent in eastern Indian, North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. These regions use the black seeds to make curries, breads and chutneys. Oftentimes, the black cumin seeds get confused with Nigella sativa, because of the color and size of the seed, but they are totally different. The Nigella seeds do have a similar pungent flavor as the black cumin, but are more along the tones of fennel, coriander and nutmeg and they are mostly used for making liqueurs and sweets.
In the 7th century, traders spread cumin from Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean across North Africa, and eastward on their trade routes to Iran, India, China, and Indonesia. Hundreds of years later, Spanish conquistadors brought cumin to the Americas, where it became essential to Mexican cooking, and where the spice is still heavily cultivated. In Morocco, cumin features prominently in ras el hanout spice blends, used to season all sorts of marinades, stews, and tagines. In India, it was added to the garam masala that flavors curries, chickpeas, and countless other Indian dishes.
Cumin contains compounds called flavonoids that work as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants can help neutralize unstable particles called free radicals that cause cell damage. By neutralizing these particles, antioxidants can help prevent diseases like cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Cumin is also a good source of:
- Vitamin A
Research shows that cumin keeps cancer cells from multiplying. In one study, rats that were fed cumin were protected from colon cancer. In several other animal studies, scientists have found that cumin seeds may prevent the growth of liver and stomach tumors. Researchers in another study found that out of nine popular herbs and spices, basil and cumin were the most powerful anti-carcinogen plants.
Cumin may help to kill some bacteria. In the lab, cumin has been shown to limit the growth of microorganisms, including E. coli. The oil extracted from cumin seeds has been used as an effective larvicide and antiseptic agent. The oil even kills strains of bacteria that are resistant to other antiseptics. Researchers believe that cumin could help kill harmful bacteria that’s trying to attack your immune system. This may explain why cumin has been used as a preservative in food for centuries.
Cumin was used as a part of an herbal drug trial for diabetes. The drug successfully helped people with diabetes to manage their condition. Traditionally used as an antidiabetic drug, one study found that eating cumin can help lower urea in the blood—an organic compound that may interfere with how your body responds to insulin.
The active ingredients in cumin seeds have an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic effect. The essential oil of cumin alone wasn’t found to have anti-inflammatory properties.
A hypolipidemic is a substance that helps your body control high levels of fats that hurt your heart and cholesterol levels. Cumin is considered to have hypolipidemic properties.
Overweight women that were given cumin powder and ate a healthy diet showed improvement in their weight and vital statistics. One study showed that a mixed population of overweight men and women saw improvement in their weight equal to taking a popular diet pill.
Researchers have evaluated cumin extract for treating the cramps, digestive spasms, nausea, and bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Cumin extract was able to treat these symptoms for as long as participants were consuming it in one study. It’s so effective that researchers hope cumin might be an effective replacement for people who cannot afford expensive prescription drugs to treat their IBS.
Cumin can help your body by stimulating your central nervous system to be more effective. Cumin might even be able to help treat Parkinson’s disease because of its contribution to the body’s central nervous system function.
Photograph: Vicky Wasik
How to Buy
When you’re shopping for spices like cumin, it’s ideal to find a grocery store where the spice is selling out and being restocked frequently. Look for stores catering to cultures where the spice is in high demand. Since it’s hard to know when a grocery store last restocked their spices, this gives you the best chance of getting a fresh batch. Online retailers like Snuk and The Spice House are also reliable sources of fresh spices like cumin.
How to Store
The whole spice keeps much longer in a cool, dark cupboard, and its flavor will be more pronounced if you grind it moments before cooking. That said, there’s plenty of good quality ground cumin on the market, too, if you don’t have the time or patience for the whole spice. If you opt for the pre-ground spice, buy less of it, so you don’t end up with a pound of stale, flavorless cumin on your hands.
Kept in an airtight container, the whole seeds will last for about a year, while the ground spice loses fragrance and flavor after about three months. If your whole cumin isn’t fragrant when you crush a bit between your fingers, you’ll know it has started to loose its flavor. The spice won’t go bad, exactly, but after it has lost its intensity, it’s worth replacing.
How to Cook
Cumin is a popular seasoning in many Indian and Latin American dishes. Some recipes call for use of the whole cumin seed while others use the powdered form.
Both cumin seed and powder have a rich, earthy, nutty flavor. If you’re using whole cumin seeds, try toasting them in a nonstick pan to bring out more of their unique flavor.
Here are just a few ways you can use cumin as a seasoning in your food:
- Mix cumin with dairy-free yogurt, veggies, and other spices to make a traditional Indian raita.
- Toss cumin seeds with rice or couscous.
- Stir cumin into your favorite chili recipe.
- Sprinkle a little cumin onto a salad.