Long time readers of this blog may remember that there was a time when I did a series entitled “The Spice of Life” in which I featured a different spice and told you about it’s cultural history, as well as it’s healing properties or potential. It’s been a few years since I did the last one, I got side-tracked with other things and school took up so much of my time that I didn’t have any time leftover to really do personal - non-school-related - research, but I really miss doing those posts, and I think it’s great information to share and so my goal for the year is to start doing them again. Starting today, with one of my favorite spices of all time - Cumin! I absolutely love cumin, I adore it, I use it liberally in a lot of my cooking, it is fantastic and wonderful, and makes food taste great, but that’s not even the best part.
Cumin is a flowering plant in the Apiaceae family, native from the East Mediterranean all the way to India. For millennia it has been used as both a spice and as a medicine. In fact there’s evidence of cumins use in Indian archaeological sites that date back to the second millennium BC and some New Kingdom Archaeological sites in Egypt that date as far back as the 11th century BC, where it was used - at least in part - in the mummification process of the Pharaohs. Cumin is even mentioned in the Bible, both as a culinary spice, as well as a form of currency! All this is to say that Cumin has been around for a very long time, and was once highly prized.
It’s hard to say exactly where it was originally cultivated, some say Iran, some say Egypt, some say the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks and Romans used cumin widely in their cooking, and the Greeks actually kept jars of it on their kitchen tables as we would do with pepper today. During the Middle Ages cumin was one of the most common spices used in Europe, where somehow it became a symbol of love and fidelity. It was carried in the pockets of wedding attendees, and women would commonly bake it into bread to give to their soldier husbands as they left for war. Certain Arabic traditions also consider cumin a symbol of love and fidelity and even consider it to have aphrodisiac properties.
From Europe Cumin was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Though popularity of the spice dropped off in Europe after the Middle Ages it still remains an widely used and extremely important spice in the Middle East, and India. Interestingly today India produced 70% of the world cumin supply, and consumed 90% of it’s own supply! (63% of the world production) Other producers of Cumin are Syria, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, China, and Chile.
Cumin has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a digestive aid. In fact in Sanskrit Cumin is known as Jiraka, Jira meaning “That which helps digestion.”Ayurvedic medicine also uses Cumin as a way to enhance appetite, taste perception, vision, strength, and lactation. It’s also used to treat ailments such as fever, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal distension, and edema. Though it has been used for centuries as a digestive aid medical science is just starting to prove it. Recent research has shown that cumin may stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes which are compounds necessary for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation.
Recent research has also suggested that Cumin may have anti-carcinogenic properties. In animal studies cumin was shown to protect laboratory animals from developing stomach or liver tumors. It’s thought that this is due to cumins potent free-radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability it has shown to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. Since free radical scavenging and detoxification are important for the general maintenance of wellness, cumin’s contribution to our overall health may reach even further then that, only time will tell.
Cumin is also a significant source of iron which helps to boost our energy and is integral to enhancing our immune system. Iron is particularly important to children and menstruating women. 2tsp of Cumin contains 15% iron, 7% manganese, 4% copper, 3% Calcium, 3% magnesium, 2% Phosphorus, and 2% B1.
There are many ways to enjoy cumin. It’s typically used most in North African, Middle Eastern, Spanish, and Indian cuisine. So use it in curries, korma’s, and dal’s. You can use it to flavor chili, stews, and soups. It’s often used in hummus, and chili as well as other Spanish or Tex-Mex dishes. You can add cumin to a black bean salad or a black bean dip or even a black bean salsa. Add cumin seeds to bread, or flatbread, or incorporate them into homemade pizza dough. You can rub vegetables with a little olive oil and sprinkle cumin over them and roast them for a delicious side dish. It makes a great compliment to any hearty bean or lentil dish, and adding cumin seeds into brown rice gives the rice a really nice aromatic flavor, add some dried apricots and almonds for extra pizzazz. You can even saute vegetables in a little oil and cumin along with other spices you might like and serve it atop a plate of rice or cous cous for a North African flavor.
If you’re interested in a more medicinal use you can make cumin tea by boiling cumin seeds in water and then letting them steep for 10 minutes. This concoction is reported to be both warming and soothing.
Lastly the combination of black pepper, cumin and honey is considered an aphrodisiac in certain Middle Eastern countries, whether or not it actually works is anyone’s guess , but it is a tasty way to dress vegetables, tofu or tempeh. Only I’d urge you to replace the honey with agave instead, for a cruelty-free option.
May your life be rich in spice! And as always happy and health eating to you!
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