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What is Cumin?

J. Beam
J. Beam

Cumin is a flowering plant that has been grown as a spice since ancient times. It's a member of the Apiacea family and grown natively in the eastern Mediterranean region and east of India. Cumin requires a hot climate for growth. Its flowers are small and can be either white or pink in color. The plant produces a tiny, compressed fruit containing a single seed similar to fennel, but smaller in size and slightly darker in color.

As a spice, cumin has a distinctive aroma that is used to add flavor and to compliment the natural sweetness of a food or dish. Although it's sometimes used in North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisine, the spice is most common in Indian and Mexican cuisine. It is used in curry powder and is the source of a distinct odor that emanates from the skin of people who routinely eat foods prepared with this spice mix. This is mostly due to the high concentration of oil compounds found in cumin seeds, which are absorbed into the body and released through sweat.

Ground cumin.
Ground cumin.

Ground cumin is called for in a number of recipes. Often used in salsas and other Tex-Mex dishes, it's hotter to the taste than caraway and has a sharp, slightly bittersweet taste. The spice makes a good addition to chili and enchiladas, and a flavorful seasoning to ground meats. Cumin is also useful to spice up plain rice, breads, or other dishes when a spicy flavor is desired. When combined with other spices, such as garlic and chili powder, the mix makes a nice rub for grilling lamb and chicken.

Cumin seeds.
Cumin seeds.

Cumin has a deep-rooted history as a common spice and is mentioned in both Testaments of the Bible. The Egyptians used it medicinally. It is sometimes used as a stimulant and an antispasmodic, and it is also said to relieve nausea and diarrhea and to treat morning sickness. Not frequently used medicinally in the West today, except sometimes in veterinary medicine, it remains a powerful herbal remedy in the East.

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Discussion Comments


@anon14713-- There really isn't any substitute for cumin. There is no other spice that tastes like it.

I suggest you use cumin seasoning if a recipe calls for it. I know cumin can be expensive. A tiny bottle of cumin costs so much at my grocery store. That's why I buy it from international grocery stores instead. I got a whole bag of cumin at the Bangladeshi grocery for half the price of the tiny bottle they were selling elsewhere. It's really fresh and fragrant too.


@anon155156-- You mean like in biryani? That's the only rice dish I have had with cumin in it.

Biryani is really good and has lots of cumin in it. I think it uses other spices too, like saffron, cinnamon and whole black pepper.

Cumin is definitely very common in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as well. That makes sense since India has always been the source of spices for the region.


Cumin is nice but when people add too much of it to dishes, I can't handle it. It has a very strong flavor and can overtake all other flavors. I don't like that. I can handle a pinch or two but not anything more than that.

I only put cumin in foods with lots of ingredients so that it doesn't become the dominant flavor. It's good in stews, sauces and meatballs.


Does anyone know of any dishes that combine cumin and chicken? I don't think I have every had something like this but it seems like they would pair up nicely.


I am a big fan of making beans and rice as a quick after work meal and cumin powder really elevates the dish. That plus some chili powder, fresh garlic, and fresh jalapeno.

You can whip the whole thing up is less than 20 minutes and have a really tasty, mostly healthy meal.


@shell4life – That sounds delicious! I love the flavor and aroma of dried cumin.

It makes food have a slightly smoky flavor. It makes things taste like they might have been grilled just a little while, even if they haven't.

I make chickpea popcorn with cumin. I roll the chickpeas in olive oil and then sprinkle them with cumin and chili powder. It's a great alternative to regular popcorn.


Cumin makes steak fajitas awesome. Without it, I don't think they would taste very much like fajitas at all.

I cut some steak into thin strips and season them with a blend of cumin, garlic powder, salt, black pepper, and chili powder. I use more cumin than anything else. I shake the meat and the spices together inside a sealed container.

I cook it with bell peppers and onions in canola oil in a skillet for a few minutes. The meat cooks quickly, because it has been sliced so thin.

Just before I remove the skillet from the stove, I mix in a few drops of lime juice. This tenderizes the meat and works well with the flavor of the cumin.


I keep a bottle of dried cumin in my spice rack at all times. It is one of my favorite flavors to add to food. It tastes great with chicken and beef, and I haven't tried it yet, but I imagine it would taste good with shrimp, as well.


@anon165899 – Black beans are great with cumin! I make a chicken tortilla soup that includes both, and it is delicious.

In addition to cumin and black beans, it also includes corn, chicken, zucchini, salsa, and garlic. I always crush tortilla chips on top of the soup when I serve it. It's like eating liquid tacos!

I can really taste the cumin in the soup. Even though I don't use much in comparison to all the other ingredients, its pretty potent and it comes through in every bite.


I use Cumin when I make crock pot black eyed peas or black beans. It really brings out the flavor!


In central Asia commonly we use cumin powder and seeds with rice. it gives a very good smell and flavor to rice.


Cumin is used in Central America and Mexico also. Do research before you post a comment.


I use cumin in all my mexican dishes and american as well. I love the smell and the zing that it gives my food.


cumin is used in lebanese recipes, too.


cumin is mainly used in indian cuisine. Used in almost every indian dish from potatoes, chicken, pork, lamb, bread, rice, etc. I've never seen cumin used in any other nationalities. Not sure though. i mostly cook Indian, American, Italian, French cuisine.


Cumin isn't very Mexican. I lived there 11 years and never tasted it except in tamales. I'm talking a very wide area in Mex. But if you want to cook Mexican don't leave out the cilantro. If you want to cook Texan put cumin!


don't say she's crazy, because she didn't say it's the same, she only said it's a good substitute, meaning if you cook it with another ingredient, it would still come out good! dumbo


is cumin same with celery?


No. *Corn starch* is not a cumin substitute. It is nowhere close. Cornstarch is often used for thickening liquids, not for taste.


Is cumin the same as corn starch? Can corn starch be used in instead of cumin in Taco ingredients?


Are you crazy? Cilantro and cumin are completely different. Not the same ball park, not even the same freakin' sport...


Cilantro is a good substitute for cumin in Mexican recipes.


Is there a substitute for cumin?


It is better to buy and store cumin seeds than cumin powder, since seeds will keep their flavor better. To extract even more flavor, it is a good idea to lightly toast the seeds before use.

Cumin is rich in iron and manganese, while cumin oil fights fungi, parasites and bacteria.

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