Charismatic Cumin

Karl Wells
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If I can be allowed to call a spice "charismatic" then I choose cumin. My Oxford Canadian describes charismatic as meaning "strong in character," "appealing," "alluring," and "attractive." Cumin, the wonderfully warm, aromatic Indian spice, is all of those things. When I unscrew the top of my bottle of ground cumin and inhale, the strong, concentrated aroma reminds me of rich perfume. It's quite intoxicating. I also imagine sunshine, tropical breezes and heat. Some say cumin smells of the earth. For me the scent is more above ground and strangely floral.

There was a time when so-called "exotic" spices like cumin were not on the radar of Canadian home cooks. If used at all it would have been disguised in a commercial spice mix preparation like the ubiquitous curry and chilli powders. What was on the radar included allspice, powdered ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon but not cumin. A quick scan of some of my Canadian cookbooks from a couple of decades ago didn't yield any recipes that featured cumin. I did finally come across a recipe where cumin was listed as a separate ingredient. It was in a recipe for Mexican Chicken Dinner published in the 1995 edition of "Canadian Living's Family Cookbook."

Cumin and onions. - Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

If I can be allowed to call a spice "charismatic" then I choose cumin. My Oxford Canadian describes charismatic as meaning "strong in character," "appealing," "alluring," and "attractive." Cumin, the wonderfully warm, aromatic Indian spice, is all of those things. When I unscrew the top of my bottle of ground cumin and inhale, the strong, concentrated aroma reminds me of rich perfume. It's quite intoxicating. I also imagine sunshine, tropical breezes and heat. Some say cumin smells of the earth. For me the scent is more above ground and strangely floral.

There was a time when so-called "exotic" spices like cumin were not on the radar of Canadian home cooks. If used at all it would have been disguised in a commercial spice mix preparation like the ubiquitous curry and chilli powders. What was on the radar included allspice, powdered ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon but not cumin. A quick scan of some of my Canadian cookbooks from a couple of decades ago didn't yield any recipes that featured cumin. I did finally come across a recipe where cumin was listed as a separate ingredient. It was in a recipe for Mexican Chicken Dinner published in the 1995 edition of "Canadian Living's Family Cookbook."

I remember the first time I used cumin as a primary flavouring ingredient. It was about 10 years ago. The recipe was called 24 Carat Soup, a carrot soup from Barbara Kafka's Microwave Gourmet. Apart from salt and pepper, cumin was the only seasoning ingredient. It was an eye opener for me. The cumin blended beautifully with the flavour of the carrots, enhanced it, and added its own unique taste. I've prepared a version of the soup many times since, and every time I serve it guests love it.

Seedlike fruit

According to "The Oxford Companion" to Food by Alan Davidson, cumin is the "dried, seedlike, fruits of cuminum cyminum, a pretty little annual herb of the parsley family." Davidson goes on to tell us that cumin most likely came from the Eastern Mediterranean area. (I guess that's why I see sunshine when I smell it.) These days it's grown in many different countries including India, where it's very popular. Pliny the Elder was a Roman author and naturalist. He was also a big fan of cumin. Davidson quotes Pliny as stating, "when one is tired of all seasonings, cumin remains welcome." Old Pliny had it right I think.

Cumin is also an ingredient in some famous classic spice mixtures that are often shaken on food just before it's served. This (according to Michael Bateman in "The World of Spice") is because "its mild flavours dissipate in cooking but come to the fore when added at the end of cooking." A strong version of the Iranian or Persian spice mixture, advieh, contains cumin and is used in stews, as does the Indian spice recipe, garam masala.

Jeera is the common name for cumin in India. It's used in all curries along with a number of other spices. On its own, jeera stars in jeera rice. In Madhur Jaffrey's "Step-by-Step Cooking" she recommends dry roasting all spices before using them in jeera rice or other recipes. "Roasted spices develop a heightened, nutty aroma. They can be stored for several months in an airtight jar." (Make sure you watch the pan because the spices can burn easily. I've burned them and have had to start over.)

Sweets

Cumin has an attribute that, no doubt, makes it a good match for the carrot soup I often prepare. It tends to go well with things that are sweet. Pureed carrots have a concentrated sweetness. That sweetness seems to bring out the best flavours in the cumin and the cumin brings out the best in the carrots. I hope you'll try jeera or cumin in a recipe soon, and Carrot Soup with Cumin is probably a good place to begin.

Carrot Soup with Cumin

Ingredients:

6 cups tinned chicken broth

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 onions, diced

2 tbsp. ground cumin

9 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins

Pepper to taste

Method:

In a pot sautÉ onions in oil until soft. Add cumin, carrots and chicken broth and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove from heat and cool until just warm. Puree in food processor. Add pepper. (The tinned broth contains enough salt.) Reheat in clean pot and serve.

Geographic location: Oxford, India, Eastern Mediterranean

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