Most of my favorite spices begin with the letter c: cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin. I was born in India, so all of these were familiar to me by an early age. But where I had to grow up a little to appreciate the subtleties of cardamom and coriander, cumin was an instant and enduring hit.
Impossible to say why I like it—its deep, satisfying, savory quality, its nutty crunch when toasted. And it’s equally impossible to say definitively what it tastes like. Cumin is one of those primary tastes. It’s been unflatteringly compared to bedbugs and sweat. Some call it earthy, bitter, pungent, but that can be said about a lot of spices. The only way to understand cumin is simply to taste it in its various forms.
Toast, fry, and grind to discover its full character
Here’s how to explore cumin’s range, tasting as you go:
Have on hand some whole seeds as well as some purchased already ground. Chew on a few raw seeds. Appreciate their texture as well as their flavor. (If you want a platform for tasting the spice, try slices of lightly salted boiled potato or a little dish of plain yogurt with a bit of salt.)
Next, pound a few raw seeds coarsely in a mortar and pestle and take a taste. Pulverize some in a grinder and do the same. Finally, take a sniff and taste of commercially powdered cumin to see the difference.
To the next level: Toast a few seeds in a hot, dry skillet, without any oil. Let cool a bit and taste. Now pound these toasted seeds and taste again. The last step is to heat a teaspoon of oil in a small skillet, throw in a few seeds. When they begin to sputter, lift them out of the oil—don’t let them burn or they’ll taste bitter—let cool, and taste again.
The goal is that after all of this tasting, you’ll come to see that every aspect of cumin has its charms. In fact, in Indian cooking, cumin is used raw, toasted, and fried—often in the same recipe.
A worldly spice
If I talk about cumin in an Indian-centric way, it’s more about my history than cumin’s, for the spice is an international star.
Cumin was used in ancient Egypt and the lands around the Mediterranean. From there it spread eastward, where it met an especially enthusiastic welcome in India, and westward through North Africa and Europe to the New World, where it got an equally happy reception.
You’ll find cumin in the spice section of your supermarket. You should be able to find it packaged or in bulk in any Indian, Middle Eastern, or Hispanic grocery. If you buy in bulk, buy only as much as you can use in a relatively short time, and buy from places that have a fast turnover. And unless you’re in a very lazy mood, buy only whole seeds and store them in a closed jar. It’s easy to pulverize just what you need in a mortar and pestle or in a little coffee grinder dedicated to spices, and the difference in flavor is enormous.
You’ll find recipes using cumin in the cuisines of India, Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East, and occasionally Spain and Portugal.
Cumin stands on its own very well, but it also has a great affinity to garlic and pepper (black or chile), and it’s traditionally paired with coriander in Indian cooking. Cumin is a key player in curry powder and often appears in another Indian spice mixture called garam masala. It is an essential component in Tex-Mex chili powder, as well as in Moroccan and other Middle Eastern spice blends.
Cumin is good with practically everything in the savory realm; it perks up meat, vegetables, and dairy dishes without heat. Another plus: when you eat cumin, you’re doing your digestion a good turn.
A final note: Recipes sometimes distinguish between white and black cumin. “White” cumin is our friend Cuminum cyminum; black cumin is a terminological muddle. It’s often erroneously used to describe nigella seeds, an entirely different species with an entirely different flavor. Kala zeera, true Indian black cumin, is a dustily fragrant relative of caraway native to India and the trans-Himalayan regions, with specialized uses in North Indian meat and vegetable dishes. But that’s another story.
Experiment with cumin
- Before roasting a chicken or ears of corn, rub with a mix of pounded raw cumin seeds, soft butter, some crushed garlic, and a pinch of cayenne.
- Add an earthy flavor to plain rice by adding some raw cumin along with the salt and water. Or sizzle some seeds along with some chopped onion in butter or oil and proceed as you would for a rice pilaf.
- Sprinkle coarsely ground toasted cumin seeds over boiled or roasted potatoes, along with cayenne and salt.
- Transform a simple dip of cucumbers and yogurt by adding some toasted, ground cumin.
- Sizzle whole cumin seeds along with a clove or two of chopped garlic and add this at the last minute to lentil soup.
- Season a sofrito—the sautéed mixture of chopped onions, green peppers, and garlic—for black beans generously with cumin.
- Add whole raw or toasted cumin seeds to cornbread or cheese straws.