There are spices that burn. Spices that singe. And spices that bring their heat gently, graciously waiting for you to warm up to them.
Cumin stands firmly in the final camp.
As a spice, it’s mellow enough to play nice with others, personable enough to show distinction, earthy enough to feel well grounded, and exotic enough to render mundane ingredients sultry and seductive.
Its appeal was not lost on the ancients.
Seeds have been found at a site in Syria that date back to the second millennium B.C. Ancient Greeks kept a bowl of cumin on their tables, much like we would keep a pepper mill. It merits mention not once, but twice, in the Bible: in the Old Testament as a crop that deserves meticulous stewardship; in the New Testament as a currency in which the righteous paid their tithes.
Aside from its culinary value, it’s long been touted as medicinal. Early Greek medical texts claimed it curbed “hysteria” in women — which, considering women’s restrictive role in society at the time, renders the diagnosis itself at least a bit hysterical.
Contemporary healers concur with ancient assertions that cumin promotes digestion.
The Romans did much to popularize cumin throughout their empire. When trade routes opened, linking the Mediterranean with India and China, cumin was in tow, and wherever it went, the spice found a welcoming home.
“Once introduced into a new land and culture, cumin has a way of insinuating itself deeply into the local cuisine, which is why it has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world,” writes social researcher Gary Nabhan in his book, “Cumin, Camels, and Caravans.”
Cumin came to our shores by way of the Columbian Exchange, the remarkable flow of goods between the Old World and New World that ensued in the wake of Columbus.
Europe got tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chiles, vanilla and chocolate. We got coffee, citrus, olives, onions, garlic, cattle, sheep, almonds and many precious spices, cumin among them.
Cumin found fertile ground in Mexico. It seems born to have been blended with native flavors, like chiles, annatto and chocolate.
If you grew up in the Midwest, your first encounter with cumin may have been when you sat down to that stew of beef, beans and tomatoes your family knew as chili. Cumin is a major player in most commercial chili powders. Or for that matter, that delightful initial bite into a burrito from Taco Bell.
But cumin is a global player, and as such, deserves to be tasted in many forms from many lands. Here are but a few.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer with an appetite for food, history and culture. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.