history Love Musings spices

Food For Thought: Cumin

Rounding out the first week of this New Year, I finally started considering whether or not I would expend my time and effort imposing some sort of resolution upon myself. To be clear, I don’t like resolutions. It could be because I always break them. More likely, it’s because they take time and effort, and investing either of those things into a firm commitment arbitrarily imposed at the turn of each year (and usually devised at the last minute) is just so… off-putting.

So while it may simply be a matter of semantics, I’ve decided not to resolve myself to something, but rather to set a goal, and try to see it through. As I sit here, scribbling away (while I should rightfully either be grading, or trying to get some sleep while the twins do the same), my goal is to learn and share some new bit of information, at least once a week, for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, I’ve placed no other requirements upon myself. So, without further ado:

Image result for cumin

What can I learn about the history of cumin?

The inspiration for today’s bit of learning hit me while I dug through my kitchen spice drawer yesterday. While searching for a bottle of “Italian Spice Blend” to sprinkle atop a pizza, I knocked up against a nearly empty bottle of ground cumin. As I continued to rummage, my mind lingered on the small container of orange-brown powder, and I started thinking about how much I use the spice in my cooking, and how little I really knew about it.

Having taught world history years ago, I know that the spice trade can be an engaging way to consider the impact of globalization, and the history of individual spices can be an interesting (culinary) window through which to consider the pluralistic nature of the world.

So this evening, I sat down (with a cold one, poured fresh from my new Hopsy SUB) and started digging. I found out that cumin – though not deodorant – is and OLD spice. (Sorry/not sorry. I love dad jokes.)

Cumin, a seed-spice from the parsley family, is native to an area stretching from the Mediterranean to South Asia, though it may have originated in and around the area of modern Egypt and Iran. In fact, archaeological excavations of ancient Egyptian sites have revealed evidence of cumin dating back nearly 5,000 years, where it was used (among other things) as both a spice and a preservative in the mummification process. In addition, the word for “cumin” relates directly to the ancient Sumerian word for the spice – “gamun” – evidence of which is recorded in cuneiform script dating back more than 4,000 years.

Image result for cumin

Beginning with these early instances in Egypt and Sumer, cumin begins popping up throughout recorded history, first in evidence from Mesopotamian tablets (the earliest recorded recipes, known as the ‘Yale Culinary Tablets’), and later in Greek and Roman texts, German folk songs, and even the Bible. While no specific recorded evidence exists, it is also worth mentioning that cumin is believed to have been at use in Indian life and cuisine for millennia. In almost all instances, it’s recorded not just as a spice for food, but also in some other capacity as well, such as a medicine, or an aphrodisiac.

While the recurring evidence of the use of cumin may not be particularly surprising in the area in which it originated, the persistence of its spread into non-native territory is indicative of the power of economics, and frankly, flavor.

Cumin is now an integral part of native cuisines the world over. It’s no surprise that most recipes for Garam Masala (“Indian Spice Mix”) being with a heaping portion of cumin. It’s also an integral ingredient in Chicken Tikka Masala, which – in a nod to both globalization and (let’s be honest) Imperialism – is the symbolic national dish of the UK. Throughout the Middle East, cumin is a table condiment – like salt and pepper – as it has been since the days of Hammurabi. It also appears as a prominent spice in both Xinjiang (A Northwest Chinese province), and Mongolian cuisines.

This speaks to the fact that spices were among the plethora of goods traded along the Silk Road (beginning with the use of the Persian Royal Road around 2,500 years ago), and were obviously the focus of the globalized spice trade, control of which was seized by the Portuguese and Spanish in the mid 1500’s. Therefore, it’s no surprise that by the following century, cumin had found its way not only to China, the European mainland, and the United Kingdom, but also to the Americas, and is now pervasive in Latin American cuisines, especially those of Brazil and Mexico, where it has been grown since being introduced.

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Though it’s available (and consumed) the world over, the general American experience with cumin is as an element of Mexican – or more accurately, Mexican-American – cuisine in many cases perpetrated by the likes of Taco Bell and Chipotle. Cumin is a regular ingredient in premade taco mixes, curries, and bottled chili powders… and is featured prominently in my own cooking.

Looking through the list of my own recipes (some of which are below) that feature this wonderful spice, I feel a certain sense of gratitude. I feel thankful to live in a time and place in which I not only have access to seemingly limitless ingredients from all over the world, but that I have the capacity and resources to gain some semblance of understanding of the thousands of years of the global history and tradition hinted at by the presence of an otherwise unassuming bottle of orange-brown powder in a kitchen drawer in Redmond, Washington.

And now that I’ve shared that with you, I encourage you to go make something with some cumin in it.

My own favorite recipes featuring cumin:

Some of my resources:


  1. What a great post! I laughed at the deodorant comment, before the punch line, because when my husband first smelled cumin, he said it smelled like BO! But I use it a LOT, mostly in Southwestern/Mexican, like you said, but also in Indian cuisine. Such good stuff!

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