Welcome back to The Spice Cabinet column. Today we talk about cumin.
Though it no longer is particularly popular within Italian kitchens, cumin has a history almost as rich as its flavor. Cumin first made it’s appearance in Ancient Mesopotamia ‒ where the spice was originally cultivated ‒ as evidenced by the presence of seeds found on Syrian excavation sites dating back to the second millennium BCE. Today, cumin is not only a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, but is also used heavily in countries like India, China, Spain and Mexico, admired for its nutty, peppery taste.
Apart from the Mesopotamians, the Ancient Egyptians were also known to have used cumin both to add some spice to their meals and to mummify pharaohs. Not only that, but in Ancient Greece, women would take cumin as part of a prescription to relieve “hysteria.” In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder mentions cumin in his book Natural History, written in the first century AD, that if women smell cumin during sex, they are more likely to conceive. Talk about versatility!
In the kitchen, the Ancient Greeks and Romans loved cumin because it served as a cheap alternative to black pepper, which was much more difficult to come by. In fact, the ancients kept cumin in small bowls on the table at every meal instead of pepper, a practice some Middle Eastern and North African countries still practice today. It was also written in an Ancient Roman cookbook dating back to the 4th century AD that cumin was essential particularly when it came to throwing lavish parties.
During the Middle Ages, cumin was actually used to pay rent in 13th-century England, and in the 15th century during the Age of Exploration, cumin went overseas. Conquistadors planted the seeds in modern-day Mexico and the Southwestern United States, and the spice has been intrinsic to Mexican cuisine ever since, used to flavor tacos, chiles and salsas. In the East, cumin found its way onto the Silk Road into India and China, and has been used in cooking ever since. In India, cumin is used in numerous curries whereas the Chinese use cumin in soups and egg dishes.
While it’s safe to say that cumin won’t actually cure a woman’s hysteria, the pungent seeds are actually an excellent source of iron and antioxidants. In Southern India, cumin seeds fight a vast array of illness and discomfort when boiled. Drinking cumin water, or jira water, can help combat toxins, aid digestion, build your immune system, treat acne, sleep better, make hair shinier and more! It’s incredible what a handful of seeds grown in the desert can do for your body.