Cumin is one of those spices that lends a definitive flavor to certain dishes. Without its pungent earthiness Southeast Asian and Indian curries, chili powder blends, and hummus, for example, just wouldn't taste quite right.
As one of the most aromatic spices, cumin gives off a pungent earthy aroma that is warm and almost sweet with hints of pine and lemon. The flavor is strong and slightly bitter with a fresh somewhat herbaceous finish. The distinctive flavor and aroma of cumin is attributed to a unique chemical in its makeup called cuminaldehyde. When toasted in hot oil or a dry pan the bitterness mellows and the strong pungent flavor gives way to a smoother toasty nuttiness. This is because the amount of cuminaldehyde decreases when exposed to heat letting mellower aroma compounds come forward. The essential oils in cumin are not as volatile as many spices when exposed to heat which makes it a great spice to use when seasoning dishes that will be roasted in a hot oven or cooked a long period of time.
Beans, grains, beef, lamb and chicken are all great ingredients to season with cumin. Starchy foods like potatoes, rice, and breads handle the flavor of cumin well too. In addition, eggplant, fennel, beets, cabbage, carrots, squash and onions welcome the punchy flavor of this spice. As a key ingredient in chili power and curries, as well as other more exotic spice blends like garam masala, panch phoran, ras el hanout, baharat, and achiote paste, cumin has a proven ability to get along well with lots of other spices. Experiment by combining it with coriander, bay leaf, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chile peppers, paprika, oregano, or thyme. Even some sweeter spices like allspice, cinnamon, anise seed and nutmeg make a nice match for cumin. Toasted cumin along with allspice, ginger and fennel seed gives banana bread an intriguing twist. Try adding a dash of cumin the next time you make meatballs, tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, egg salad, guacamole, black beans, or butternut squash soup. Or blend a little cumin with butter and spread over fresh corn on the cob. Cumin is associated with Mexican, North African, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Tex-Mex cooking, so keeping the flavor profiles of these cuisines in mind can be helpful when deciding on other spices to use with cumin.
Like most spices, the best flavor and aroma come from freshly ground seed, so it's ideal to buy whole cumin seeds and grind them in a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder as needed. Having whole seed on hand rather than just ground cumin gives you more flexibility when cooking too. Sometimes the whole seeds are a better choice for a dish over using powder. The seeds are wonderful with roasted vegetables, in breads, as a garnish on crackers or flat bread, in a spice rub for a steak, or steeped as tea. In India cumin seeds are used in a variety of beverages like lassi yogurt drinks, or combined with tamarind water, mint, ginger and lemon with a touch of sugar and salt as a nice digestive drink.
Black cumin (Cuminum nigrum) (Bunium persicum) is a related plant to brown cumin, but produces seeds that are noticeably smaller and thinner and the flavor is much less pungent. Though it's called black cumin, the seeds are actually just a darker brown compared to Cuminum cyminum. For how widely spread the use of cumin is, black cumin is rather uncommon outside the Kashmir region in Northern India and the Middle East.
The color difference between the two may be a matter of shades of brown, but the flavor differences are quite distinct. Black cumin doesn't share the distinctive pungent cuminaldehyde compound that defines the flavor of brown cumin, but has a much softer presence with more of a fennel aroma and sweeter lemony-caraway flavor. Black cumin can be seen in the food of Northern India, North African and the Middle East. It's often added to chutneys, curries, meat dishes, rice dishes, breads, and yogurt.
The taste and aroma of herbs and spices, like any food, are comprised of many compounds. It's the sum of these parts that creates the flavor and aroma associated with an item. With careful tasting and a little contemplation individual nuances can be teased apart to reveal the tapestry of flavors behind the taste of a single herb or spice. A trained palate is one way to do this, but for those of us without such talents, we have science. Food scientists are able to isolate the hundreds of various chemical compounds that create the flavors and aromas of food. It can be helpful to understand the chemical composition of herbs and spices to better understand the flavor impact a particular seasoning will have on a dish. The levels of these chemicals can vary significantly for the same spice from crop to crop, but listed are the most commonly associated aroma and flavor compounds for each Spice Library entry. The two primary chemical families for the compounds found in herbs and spices are terpenes and phenolics.
Terpene flavor compound family - highly volatile and easily evaporate and oxidize when exposed to air, light, and heat. Spices containing terpenes are best purchased and stored whole to better preserve their flavor characteristics
Once cumin is toasted the dominate aroma compounds become pyrazines rather than terpenes which is a good example of how toasting spices changes the flavor profile rather than "bringing out the flavor," as it's commonly said to do.
Black cumin has a much lower level of essential oil than standard cumin and is comprised mainly of carvone, limonene and p-cymene giving it a distinctly unique flavor from cumin cyminum.
In the fifteenth century cumin was part of the active spice trade between the Malarbar Coast of India and the Mediterranean. Ships sailed to the Mediterranean loaded with cardamom, turmeric, peppercorns, and cinnamon and returned to the Malabar Coast stocked with the bounty of that region including cumin, coriander, and fennel.
Now it's grown in many countries with China being the largest producer and consumer. Most of the cumin sold on the world market is grown in India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The bulk of the cumin imported to the U.S is grown in Pakistan and Turkey. The quality of cumin is fairly consistent regardless of where it's grown.
Cumin is the seed of a small annual herb called Cuminum cyminum in the carrot family. It's native to the areas of Northern Africa and Eastern and Central Asia. Cumin grows well in warm temperate climates which makes it quite adaptable to a wide variety of locations. Planting times vary with location to avoid very hot, very cold, and very wet seasons. India harvests in March and April, Turkey in June and July and China crops are harvested in August and September.
Once planted, cumin seeds are typically harvested four months later. The plants are either cut or uprooted and dried, and then the seeds threshed. The seeds have a similar look to caraway seeds, but cumin seeds have straighter sides, whereas caraway seeds have a slightly curved shape.
According to the Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavors, the name for cumin came from the Sanskrit word, sughandan, which means "good smelling."