A Cumin Love Affair

BY Christina Riveland TIMEOctober 23, 2010 PRINT

Spices on display at a market. (
Spices on display at a market. (
It must have been my first taste of a Dutch cheese laced with these fragrant seeds that led me to appreciate cumin.

When I discovered the uses of cumin’s ground version in many international dishes, I was hooked. The spice’s smoky aroma in Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Mexican cuisine is unparalleled. I cannot imagine good Mexican food without cumin, and adding a few teaspoons when you are stewing a chicken transforms a potentially blah meal into something extraordinary. And added to meatloaf or meatballs—such nice flavor!

Little did I know that cumin is the second most popular spice, after black pepper, and is used in many ethnic cuisines, such as Tex-Mexican, West Indian, Brazilian, Filipino, and South American. It is also a major component in curry powder.

So, should you enjoy a meal at any one of these exotic eateries, the warm, smoky, earthy flavor you might not be able to identify is due to the cumin in the preparation. At home, I suggest adding cumin to soups and stews for a new culinary delight. It might just elevate an otherwise humdrum dinner into something memorable.

I had a pleasant, unusual success with cumin added to plain butter cookies. My friends could not get enough of them. If you are brave enough to try a new spice or herb and add it to a conventional recipe, the results will pleasantly surprise you.

Cumin is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. The cumin plant grows up to 1.6 feet tall and is hand-harvested. The white or pink flowers are small, and the fruit contains a single seed.

According to, cumin is rich in potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and sodium. It contains a good amount of iron and a small amount of zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium, and it is rich in vitamin A and choline. Further benefits include vitamins C and E, niacin, and small amounts of vitamins K, B6, thiamine, riboflavin, and folate.

Cumin boiled in water and drunk as a “tea” makes a good tonic. I add a bit of honey and it becomes a pleasant beverage—a nice change from coffee or tea.

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