One of the world's most popular spices, cumin is extremely aromatic, with a warm, spicy, slightly bitter, earthy flavor. Cumin seeds are enjoyed around the world but especially in North African, Middle Eastern, Indian and Mexican cuisines.
Botanical name: Cuminum cyminum L.
A low-growing, tender, annual member of the carrot and parsley ( Umbelliferae ) family. The yellowish-brown fruit of the plant--cumin seed as we know it--is elongated, with nine ridges. Cumin seeds resemble caraway seeds in appearance, although close inspection shows that the cumin seed is straighter, longer, and greener than the caraway seed.
Egyptians used cumin around 5000 B.C. both to season meats, fish, and stews and to mummify their dead. The Romans used it as a substitute for pepper, and the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius was nicknamed "the cumin splitter" because he was frugal in his personal life in order to help provide money for social projects.
In the Middle Ages, when cumin was very popular, Europeans believed it would keep poultry from wandering away and ensure fidelity between couples. The Germans carried cumin, dill and salt in their pockets when being wed, and in parts of Europe, a soldier would share a farewell wine powdered with cumin or carry with him a loaf of cumin bread baked by his sweetheart.
Cumin was introduced to Latin America by Spanish explorers when the New World was settled, and it quickly became a mainstay in their cooking. Its use in the U.S. was minimal until the explosion of interest in Mexican and other ethnic dishes.