Cumin is indigenous to the Nile valley but is now widely cultivated in hot countries from India to North Africa to China and the Americas. It has a long history of use dating back 5,000 years to the ancient Egyptians.
Cumin seeds are oval and usually light brown in colour. Seeds of the less common black cumin are smaller. In Indian cuisine cumin is sometimes linguistically confused with caraway. Jeera usually means cumin but shia jeera means caraway. Also, nigella (which is not cumin) is sometimes referred to as black cumin! Cumin is available as whole dried seeds or in ground form.
The aroma of cumin is strong, heavy and warm and slightly sweet. Cumin tastes pungent, sharp and slightly bitter. It is a common seasoning in many Indian foods and an important ingredient in many curry powders. It is an essential ingredient in chilli con carne and other Mexican recipes. It is used to flavour chutneys, couscous, rice and vegetables in addition to most meat, poultry and seafood. In parts of Europe it is burned with wood to smoke cheeses.
Cumin’s essential oil is used in fragrances. Medicinally, in the East cumin is used as a remedy for diarrhoea, flatulence and indigestion and is an anti-emetic. Cumin stimulates the appetite. It is claimed that cumin is a natural way to increase breast size. In the West, cumin is mainly used in veterinary medicine.