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 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 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.