Cumin

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) has merited inclusion in the title of this book exactly because it is so demonstrative of culinary globalization: it has been cultivated, utilized and traded for so long that no botanist or archaeologist is sure where it originated. Although the broad-brushstroke answer to its place of origin is western Asia, various historians have suggested Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Ethiopia, and even Southwest Asia as the locus of its domestication. There may be scant agreement as to when, where, or by whom it was domesticated, but there is little doubt as to why it began to be harvested, then managed, and finally cultivated. When toasted and ground, its khaki-colored seeds are so strongly aromatic that few can resist their lure. The cuminaldehydes in its oil have a warm, earthy aroma with a lingering pungency and a flavor that is pleasantly bitter at first, before melting into an aftertaste of sweetness. Cumin flavors are fitting complements to the flavors of many legumes, from garbanzo beans and lentils in the Old World to lima, pinto, and tepary beans in the New World.

Many scholars have established that cumin was harvested and used in the Levant during the earliest Biblical times. Written records describing its inclusion in gardens and fields indicate that it was already well entrenched in the Tigris-Euphrates region when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations emerged. It appears that Arab spice traders first took it to India, Phoenicians carried it westward through their North African colonies to the Iberian Peninsula, and Berbers transported it across trans-Saharan trade routes into the semiarid Sahel.

The origin of the English term cumin lies in the Semitic languages, including the Amharic kemun, Akkadian kamûmu, Aramaic kamuna, Arabic al-kamoun, Old Hebrew kammon, and Egyptian kamnini. The Old Greek kyminon and Latin cuminim are clearly derived from the Smitic cognate and not the other way around. Most Romance languages retain some variant of these ancient terms, including cumino, comino, cominho, and cumin. In Chinese, cumin is kuming except when speaking of herbal medicine. Then cumin becomes xiao hui xiang, which likens it to fennel, just as in some other languages it is confused with caraway. In and near the Indian subcontinent, it appears that most names are rooted in the Sanskrit jri, which means to “digest,” or “ferment.” Indeed, cumin seeds are used as a digestive in many parts of the world. 

Once it has been introduced into a new land and culture, cumin has a way of insinuating itself deeply into the local cuisine, which is why it has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world. When an Israeli student whom I was hosting told me that cumin was the signature spice of hummus bi-tahini in Tel Aviv, I was taken aback at first, since at that time I believed it was primarily a Mexican spice! Ask chefs in southern India to imagine garam masala without toasted cumin, and they might tell you that jira has been in their spice kid since Indians began to cook! Its use in China is championed among the Turkic-speaking Uighur of Xinxiang Province, who likely first received it from Sogdians, Persians, and Arbs traveling the Silk Roads. Cumin is essential to complex savory spice mixtures such as the Berber ras el hanout, Georgian svanuri Marili, Yemeni zhoug, and Arab Baharat. It is also a key ingredient in Cajun spice mixes, seven seas curry in Malaysia, and Indian masalas. It has made the fewest inroads in Europe, where it is largely limited to flavoring cheese, such as Gouda and Leyden. In fact, in Finnish, juusto means “cheese,” and cumin is called juustokumina.

Resources: 
Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed September 3, 2011.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Weiss, E.A. Spice Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing, 2002.
Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cumin_of_Chinna_Salem.jpg
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press