Spice Up Your Health: Cumin

by Sheetal Parikh, MS, RDN, LDN

I am excited to starting the journey of our spice learning series with the most famous spice, CUMIN which is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, native to a territory including the Middle East and stretching east to India. Cumin was a significant spice for the Minoans in ancient Crete. The ancient Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin was also used heavily in ancient Roman cuisine. In India, it has been used for millennia as a traditional ingredient in innumerable recipes, and forms the basis of many other spice blends. Cumin was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Black and green cumin are used in Persian cuisine. Today, the plant is mostly grown in the Indian subcontinent, Northern Africa, Mexico, Chile, and China. Since cumin is often used as part of bird food and exported to many countries, the plant can occur as an introduced species in many territories. 

Flavor Profile and Culinary Uses

Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and aroma with a bit of both sweetness and bitterness. The whole seeds need to be toasted in order to reach the optimum flavor. You can pick from Iranian, Indian, or Middle Eastern cumin and you’ll get a different flavor profile with each one. Cumin has many uses as both a cooking spice and for medicinal purposes since ancient times. You can find this spice in several French cheeses and bread, as well as in Mexican or Tex-Mex style chili powders and Indian savory dishes. Either the whole seeds or a powder of ground cumin seed works well in many recipes, and it is prized for added an earthy or warm taste to food. You will find this spice in many soups and stews, or in chilis and curries. 

Cumin pairs very well with several spices to create the distinguished and multi-layer flavor experience in a dish. Cumin goes very well with garlic, ginger, chili powder, coriander powder. The slightly bittersweet taste of the cumin will balance out the heat from the chili powder, and they will enhance the garlic’s flavor. You can also blend cumin with coriander because the cumin will bring out the nutty taste of the coriander. Their slightly hot elements will blend well and they won’t overpower your dish, leaving you with a beautifully spiced finished product. In India, typically Cumin-Coriander powder are blended together to go with any Indian savory dishes.

Medicinal Properties

Cumin has been researched widely for its medicinal purposes and has been used to treat human ailments for centuries. The spice increases antioxidant intake, promotes digestion, provides iron, may improve blood sugar control and may reduce food-borne illnesses, weight loss and blood cholesterol. Several cultures use this spice for medicinal purposes as they believe that drinking a tea of boiled cumin seeds will help aid digestive issues or detoxification. 

Cumin seeds and cumin powder should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, and dry place. Properly stored, ground cumin will generally stay at best quality for about 3 to 4 years. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one teaspoon of whole cumin seeds contains: 7.88 calories, 0.37 g of protein, 0.47 g of fat, 0.93 g of carbohydrate, 19.6 mg of calcium, 1.39 mg of iron, and 7.69 mg of magnesium.

I like to add cumin seeds to all my vegetables cooked Indian style. The typical Indian way is heating a teaspoon of oil and adding a teaspoon of cumin to let it crack to help release its aroma to the fullest.

Right now this is the time to relish different kinds of squash and below is one of my favorite recipes.

Cumin Butternut Squash and Cucumber

  • 1 cup butternut squash
  • 1 cup cucumber 
  • ½ tsp red chilli powder
  • ½ inch ginger grated
  • ½ fresh lime
  • 1 Tbsp. cilantro
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. oil 
  • Salt to taste
  1. Dice the butternut squash and cucumber.
  2. In a pan, heat oil, add the cumin and let it crack for few seconds, promptly add squash and cucumber to it. Add salt and mix everything.
  3. After 3-4 mins, add grated ginger, chili powder, sugar, cilantro and lime.
  4. Mix everything again and let it cook for 5-7 mins and it is ready to relish as a main and/or side dish. (You can add extra cilantro and other squash per your choice)

Sheetal Parikh, MS, RDN, LDN is specialized in Plant-Based Nutrition and has been vegetarian all her life. She brings unique versatility in the nutrition world blending eastern and western cultures and traditions. She believes that “You are what you Eat”. Currently she is an Author for Vegan/Vegetarian diets in Nutrition Care Manual, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, Florida State Coordinator and Diversity Liaison for Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, Advisory Board Member for Keiser University and she loves to create new recipes and cook healthy and yummy plant based meals for her colleagues, friends and family. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Arjit S Mahal says:

    Thanks for the history of Cumin Seed. I have always enjoyed its flavor and taste; now I know of the benefits as well.

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