Cuminum cyminum, or cumin, is an annual herb of the parsley family. It rarely grows higher than one meter and bears flowers in umbels. It is native to India, the Mediterranean, Europe, Iran, and regions of Asia and Africa. It is an introduced species in Mexico, Latin America, and the United States. Cumin oil is extracted by steam distillation from the ripe seed. It is pale yellow and acquires a deeper yellow color as it ages. The oil has an overpowering smell and blends well with caraway, angelica, rosemary, and chamomile. Although non-toxic, the oil is phototropic, and exposure to the skin can cause dermatitis. The oil is useful in treating muscular aches.

The spent cumin from which oil has been extracted contains 23 percent carbohydrates, 19 percent protein, 10 percent fat, and 5.5 percent soluble dietary fiber. It also contains thiamine (0.05 mg/100 g), riboflavin (0.28 mg/100 g) and niacin (2.7 mg/100 g). It is a rich source of minerals: Fe2+ (6.0 mg/100 g) and Zn2+ (6.5 mg/100 g). Monoterpene, hydrocarbons, oxygenated monoterpenes, oxygenated sesquiterpenoids, saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, aldehydes, phenolics, flavonoids, and tannins have been identified in the plant.

India is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of cumin. In 2009–2010 India’s estimated production was 290,000 metric tons, domestic consumption was 100,000 metric tons, and global consumption was 187,000 metric tons (Indiabulls Commodities Limited). According to the government-operated Indian Spices Board, whose main objective is to expand and export spice production, India exported 49,750 metric tons of cumin in 2009–2010. Other major producers of cumin are Syria (10,000–20,000 metric tons), Iran (5,000–10,000 metric tons), and China (8,000 metric tons). Some production occurs in Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Japan, Netherlands, France, and Morocco. Syria and Turkey consume 10 percent of cumin; the rest is exported to Europe, the United States, and Latin America. With supply outstripping demand, the market price of cumin is low; thus, future cultivation may be reduced.

Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China were producers and consumers of cumin. Cumin seeds have been recovered from multiple ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. Papyri from 1550 and excavated pottery from the 5th century BC include a cough remedy with cumin, honey, and milk as ingredients (Poole, 2001). The Pharisees collected tithes on cumin, indicating its importance to the local economy. In one of the oldest ancient Egyptian medical texts, the Hearst papyrus (c. 2nd half of the 2nd millennium BC), cumin seeds are mentioned as medicine and as indigenous to Egypt. Various prescriptions are given in paragraphs 28, 55, and 125. “The seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence. They were often used together with coriander for flavoring. Cumin powder was mixed with wheat flour as a binder, and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints. Powdered cumin mixed with grease or lard was inserted as an anal suppository to disperse heat from the anus and stop itching.”

The spice was well-known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Greeks kept cumin at the dining table, similar to pepper today, and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin was considered a good substitute for black pepper, an expensive import from India. Pliny wrote that ground cumin seed in bread, water, or wine aided digestion and treated squeamishness, similar to Egyptian practice. Ancient Romans and Greeks used cumin in cosmetics to create a pale, pallid complexion. Pliny also suggested that smoking the seeds would give a desirable “scholarly pallor.” Socrates considered it beneficial as an aid to scholarly pursuits. Cumin represented faithfulness; soldiers and merchants sometimes carried seeds in their pockets to remind them of family waiting for them back home. In ancient Rome, cumin was regarded as a symbol of avarice, greed, and a valued spice. Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius, emperors with a reputation for their avarice, were privately nicknamed “Cuminus.”

Verses written after the death of the Prophet Isaiah, who is said to have been born in the Kingdom of Judah (c. 8th century BC), indicate that cumin was an important spice in ancient Israel. With the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD and the Mongols in 1206, the trade routes and supply chains between the Middle East and Europe were severed. Jews emerged as the sole neutral traders. However, interregional trade was limited, and spice became less abundant in Europe during the Middle Ages. Eventually, Spanish and Portuguese colonialists introduced the spice to the Americas as European colonial powers gained control of these lands in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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