Where is cumin from?

Cumin in History

The history of cumin goes back over 5000 years. The ancient Egyptians used it as a spice in foods as well as in the mummification process. The Greeks and Romans used cumin as a spice and also applied it for medicinal purposes. Interestingly, it was used to make the complexion more pale.

There is a reference to this spice in the Bible1. The planting of cumin is described and the knowledge of beneficial farming practices is ascribed as coming from God.

Originally from Iran and the Mediterranean, cumin is a small seed that comes for the Cuminum cyminum herb, a member of the parsley family. This seed has a distinct flavor and warm aroma. It is a major ingredient in chili powder as well as curry powder. It is associated mostly with Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese foods, but the ancient Greeks kept a dish of it on the dinner table, a practice which continues today in Morocco.

Like many spices, cumin has a rich history and, in fact, according to the Bible, cumin had such a powerful medicinal value that it could be used as money! One of the common plants seen growing in Medieval monasteries, the health benefits of cumin is document by the Ancient Greek and Egyptians physicians.

In the Middle Ages, a time when spices were relatively rare, cumin was one of the most common spices. It was thought to promote love and fidelity. People carried it to weddings and walked around with it with their pockets. It was reputed to keep lovers and chickens from wandering. Thus, married soldiers were sent off to battle with a fresh baked loaf of cumin bread.

Today, cumin is cultivated and grown in many countries including Malta, India, Sicily, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and China. It is quite easy to grow and adapts well in many climates. While use of this spice has declined since the height of its popularity in the Middle Ages, it is making a comeback, probably due to the renewed interest in ethnic dishes and spicy foods.

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1. NLT Bible: Isa 28:25, Isa 28:27

Cumin

Cumin, also spelled cummin, (Cuminum cyminum), small, slender annual herb of the family Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) with finely dissected leaves and white or rose-coloured flowers. Native to the Mediterranean region, cumin is also cultivated in India, China, and Mexico for its fruits, called seeds, which are used to flavour a variety of foods.

cuminCumin (Cuminum cyminum).© Ivan Tihelka/.com

Cumin, or comino, seeds are actually dried fruits. They are thin, yellowish brown, elongated ovals about 0.25 inch (6 mm) long with five prominent longitudinal dorsal ridges interspersed with less-distinctive secondary ridges forming a tiny, gridlike pattern. An essential ingredient in many mixed spices, chutneys, and chili and curry powders, cumin seeds are especially popular in Asian, North African, and Latin American cuisines. Their distinctive aroma is heavy and strong; their taste warm and reminiscent of caraway. At one time cumin seeds were widely used as home medicinals; their medicinal use today is chiefly veterinary. The seeds contain between 2.5 and 4.5 percent essential oil, the principal component of which is cumaldehyde. The oil is used in perfumery, for flavouring a variety of liquors, and for medicinal purposes.

Black cumin, or fennel flower (Nigella sativa), a similar Eurasian herb of the family Ranunculaceae, also is used as a seasoning.

Early History of Cumin

(Cuminum Cyminum, Linn.)

Growing Cycle of Cumin

The history of cumin dates all the way back to the ancients. In Ancient Egypt, cumin was used in cooking and was also used in the mummification process.

Among the Greeks, cumin symbolized excessive desire. Marcus Antoninus was given a nick-name that referenced the herb. Folklore of the time assumed that someone who was miserly must have eaten cumin.

Pliny was said to have listed cumin as “the best appetizer of all condiments.” He also suggested that smoking the seeds would cultivate a scholarly pallor that implied long hours of scholarly pursuits. Horace referred to the practice as exsangue cuminum or the bloodless pallor from cumin.

In the 1st Century BC, the Celts baked their fish with cumin.

Cumin history and folklore includes the belief that cumin “conferred the gift of retention” or faithfulness. This concept of retention extended to objects, birds and people. Burglars, attempting to steal anything that contained cumin, would be entrapped within the home of the owners of that item. Pigeons and other birds like cumin and they were often fed cumin to prevent them from straying. To ensure their men returned home, young women gave their sweethearts bread season with cumin or wine with cumin.

As with many of the herbs we researched, there is conflicting information about cumin history and Germany. One reference, on the medicinal uses of herbs, said that cumin seeds were added to bread as a condiment. But, another source, which focused on the folklore of plants, linked cumin to the “wood and forest folks of Germany, spirits inhabiting the forests”. In other words, common folk would not have eaten cumin for fear of those spirits according to the following poem from the time…

Peel no tree,

Relate no dream,

_Pipe_ no bread, _or_

Bake no cumin in bread,

So will God help thee in thy need.

From that same reference came the anecdote of a “forest wife” who after eating a “new baked loaf, given as an offering” was said to have screamed,

They’ve baken for me cumin bread,

That on this house brings great distress.

Both of those anecdotes would certainly support that sometime in history, Germans, who lived in or near forests feared eating cumin and would most likely not have included it in their bread. As to Germans living in the cities at that time, who perhaps did not fear the forest spirits, did indeed include cumin in their baking.

Cumin History – Early Medicinal Uses

The ancients used cumin to treat pallor of the face. And like so many of the herbs on Our Herb Garden, cumin was historically used to treat flatulence.

Cumin was also used in combination with other herbs as a poultice for the treatment of stitches and other muscle pains.

Cumin essential oil was used in strong doses as a light sedative for extremely nervous and excited individuals. In perhaps in a direct contradiction, small diluted doses were used to stimulate individuals impaired by disease.

Additional Cumin Information.

Our Herb Garden also has guides on Growing Cumin.

How To Grow Cumin

Cuminum cyminum

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), is a warm season annual in the family Apiaceae. Cumin is grown for its seeds that are used whole or ground. This pungent herb is commonly used to spice Mexican, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern foods. Cumin has medicinal and culinary uses.

To harvest seeds, allow pod to ripen and turn brown. Remove from the plant and dry. Rub pods to remove the seeds. The whole stem can be cut and hung upside down in a bag to collect the seeds. Use fresh or store in an airtight container.

Growing the Herb Cumin

Start seeds inside 6 to 8 weeks before average last frost. Start outside 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost and when the temperatures are warm. Plant a group of 4 seeds at a depth of ¼ inch every 4 to 8 inches. When seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin to 1 plant every 4 to 8 inches. Seed should germinate in 7 to 14 days.

Growing Cultures

Outdoors, containers, and hydroponics.

Plant Height

Cumin grows to heights between 6 and 24 inches (15-60cm).

Plant Spacing

Cumin plants should be spaced between 4 and 8 inches (20 and 30 cm) apart in the row, while rows should be spaced 18 inches apart.

Preferred pH Range

Cumin will grow in a relatively wide pH range between 6.8 (mildly acidic) and 8.3 (alkaline), with an ideal range between 7.0 and 7.5.

Propagation

From seed. Direct sow outdoors well after last frost when soil has warmed. Or start seeds in propagation starter cubes or plugs indoors between four and six weeks before planting outdoors after soil has warmed.

Seed Germination Period

Cumin seeds will germinate in soil in approximately 7 to 14 days, but can germinate in as few as 5 or 6 days in dedicated propagation media such as Oasis Rootcubes, Rapid Rooters, or Grodan Stonewool. It is recommended to soak the seeds for approximately 8 hours prior to sowing for better germination rates.

Number of Seeds per Gram

There are approximately 30 cumin seeds per gram.

Soil Requirements

Cumin prefers a well-drained, fertile sandy loam to loamy soil but will tolerate a diverse range of soil types.

Alternative Growing Media

Soilless potting mixes (Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, etc.), perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, coco peat, Oasis Rootcubes.

Time From Seed to Saleable Plant

Cumin plants begin producing seed approximately 120 days after planting.

Sun & Lighting Requirements

Cumin grown outdoors prefers full sun.

Cumin will grow indoors satisfactorily under high output T5 fluorescent plant lights, compact fluorescent, and especially well under high intensity discharge (metal halide or high pressure sodium) plant growing lights.

Keep high output and compact fluorescents approximately one foot above the plants, and HID lights between 2 and 4 feet above the plants, depending on wattage.

Have an oscillating fan gently stir seedlings for at least 2 hours per day to stimulate a more compact, and sturdier plant habit.

USDA Hardiness

Zones 5 – 10.

Water Requirements

Water regularly, being careful not to overwater. Allow soil to go almost dry between watering, then soak thoroughly.

Potential Plant Pests and Diseases

Cumin plants can be susceptible to aphids. They may also be susceptible to wilt, blight, powdery mildew, and root rot if kept too wet.

Special Notes

Cumin plants are known to attract beneficial insects. Plants are not frost hardy.

Resources

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Description

Cumin is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. The Cumin plant grows to about 1 to 2 feet tall and is harvested by hand. Cumin is a key component in both Chili Powder and Curry Powder.

Uses

The flavor of Cumin plays a major role in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisines. Cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, and is found in achiote blends, adobos, garam masala, curry powder, and baharat.

Origins

Historically, Iran has been the principal supplier of Cumin, but currently the major sources are India, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Folklore

Superstition during the Middle Ages cited that Cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering. It was also believed that a happy life awaited the bride and groom who carried Cumin Seed throughout the wedding ceremony.

Quick Facts

Whole Cumin Seeds Ground Cumin

Color

Yellowish-brown

Flavor & Aroma

Aromatic, pungent

Sensory Profile

Cumin is characterized by a strong musty/earthy flavor which also contains some green/grassy notes.

Cumin is used in nearly all cuisines of the world. It is commercially grown in North Africa and West Asia, but if it’s given a head start and a warm summer, it will be productive in gardens as cool as Zone 4. Before it produces its strongly aromatic seeds, its flowers will attract a host of beneficial insect predators that will help to control garden pests. Find out more about how to grow cumin from seed in the guide that follows.

Latin
Cuminum cyminum
Family: Apiaceae

Difficulty
Easy

Season & Zone
Season: Warm season
Exposure: Full sun
Zone: 4

Timing
Cumin needs a long hot season to produce seeds. Start indoors four weeks before the last frost date, and transplant outside once temperatures are steadily above 15°C (60°F). Ideal temperature for germination: 18°C (65°F). Seeds should sprout in 7-14 days.

Starting
Sow 5mm (¼”) deep. Transplant at a spacing of 10cm (4″).

Growing
Cumin needs approximately 120 days to maturity from the sowing date to produce viable seeds. It is an annual member of the carrot family, and produces umbelliferous flowers that are highly attractive to beneficial garden insect predators. Flowering begins mid-summer.

Harvest
Cut the seed heads to dry indoors as late in the season as possible, or as soon as seeds can be seen to fall from the seed head.

Seed Info
Usual seed life: 2 years.

Companion Planting
As an umbelifer, cumin produces shallow flowers that are arranged in an umbel. All umbelifers are natrually attractive to predatory insects such as lacewings, ladybird beetles, and parasitoid wasps. Plant near any crop that normally attracts caterpillars or aphids.

More on Companion Planting.

What is White Cumin and Green Cumin?

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