Cumin

Cumin seeds and ground cumin
Cumin seeds and ground cumin.

Around four thousand years ago someone in ancient Babylonia recorded for posterity a recipe that included cumin in the preparation of leftover lamb. This ancient Sumerian tablet was the world’s first cookbook, listing no fewer than 25 recipes, 21 meat and 4 vegetarian. Cumin has clearly been used in cooking for millennia, and it’s good to see things haven’t changed that much in the intervening several thousand years.

Yale Babylonian culinary tablet. The worlds oldest recipes (YBC 4644) From the Yale Babylonian Collection
Yale Babylonian culinary tablet. (YBC 4644) The world’s oldest recipes. Image from Yale Babylonian Collection.

WHERE IS CUMIN FROM?

Cumin, Cuminum cyminum, is indigenous to quite a few places, from the Mediterranean, Western Asia and Egypt, and across to India. Today’s largest producer and consumer of the spice is India, but it is a popular addition to recipes from around the world.

HISTORY:

The use of cumin goes right back to the beginning of recorded history. It appears in one of the first known written languages, Sumerian, as the word gamun, in the above mentioned recipe for leftover lamb.

For the Ancient Egyptians, as well as eating it, cumin was used as one of the spices involved in the mummification process.

Medieval England was awash with cumin. It was dispensed to the poor as an act of charity, was used as a medicine for both humans and animals, taken as a health tonic, added to food such as cheese, beer and bread, and used as a rent payment. The use of the spice for rent was second only to pepper.

A monk sneaking a drink. From The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black
A monk sneaking a drink. From The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black

An example of its value was that of the treasurer of St. Augustine’s Abbey who, in 1492, paid a pound of cumin to the Lord of Wraxall to purchase a mill near Bristol, England.

MEDICINAL USES:

In his naturalis historia, Pliny the Elder suggests cumin to cure the stings of serpents, scorpions and centipedes. Dioscorides, the first century pharmacologist, recommended cumin and vinegar to cure one’s hiccups, and cumin mixed with wine as a remedy for poison.

Many texts support the use of cumin to help promote appetite and ease digestive problems, and the ancient Romans baked a cake that included anise and cumin to be eaten at the end of a meal to prevent indigestion, but they did often eat lying down!

Historically cumin has been used to preserve food, and recent studies have shown its antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. A study on diabetic rats, which were administered cumin for eight weeks, showed reduced hyperglycemia, or an excess of sugar in the bloodstream, suggesting possible anti-diabetic functions.

FOOD:

Picture of cumin, nigella and caraway seeds.
Cumin seed on the left, Nigella in the middle, and caraway on the right.

The many uses to which cumin is put in food are too innumerable to mention here, and as I have already pointed out, recipes using cumin go back thousands of years. Pliny the Elder speaks of using cumin, along with coriander, in the preservation of meats. Cumin is found in North African, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Southeast Asian cooking, among many others. It is also used as a condiment still in Greece, on the table right next to the salt and pepper.

Visually, cumin seeds can be easily confused with caraway seeds, and they are both part of the parsley family. Black cumin, or Nigella sativa, is not related.

A nice simple recipe that I am quite fond of is this vegetarian chilli with tomato salsa. I hope you will give it a try and enjoy it as much as I do.

 

Further Reading:

Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions. By William W. Hallo.

Critical approaches to the history of Western herbal medicine: from classical antiquity to the early modern period. Edited by Susan Francia and Anne Stobart.

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