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Cumin: An Ancient SIlk Road Spice

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 12, 34, and 35

Seeds of this foot-tall annual were and are flavoring staples in many lands and cultures. Northern and western Chinese like them, too. Cumin is a seasoning, perhaps not a staple to the Chinese, even though they have used two kinds of this fruit/seed for many centuries. Several sources state that cumin seeds came to China over one or more of what are now called the silk routes. They were among the few spices to go eastward to China and westward to European and Middle Eastern worlds.

Some historians say 'cumin came from India.' Others say 'no-no-no they came from Iran.' Still others locate origins elsewhere including that cumin originated in China. Current food historians believe cumin indigenous to many areas including Iran, China, India, Northern Egypt, Turkestan, several other places in the Middle East, and some places in South America.

This spice was first recorded as used in China some time in the second century, but whether that was BCE or CE seems less sure. Since its discovery, arrival, and/or incorporation into the Chinese dietary, cumin has added complexity to many Chinese dishes. And after two thousand years of use, new ways are still being found to enjoy it.

Ask yourself, why is there so much uncertainty about cumin and other spices? Reasons vary as spice names were and are problematic. Spice families and familiarity are, too. Cumin, caraway, coriander, cilantro, carrots, dill, fennel, and parsley are all related. Was that known way back then? Surely, they could see that they resemble each other. Since Linnaeus and others grouped and named plant worlds, we know all the above mentioned plants are members of the Umbelliferae family. Another confusion, for cumin at least, is that there is not one, but two major siblings. They are commonly known as white cumin and black cumin.

The entire world seems to have cumin confusion. In western literature, it can be found spelled cumin and cummin; elsewhere add or subtract k’s, n’s, m’s, and lots of other letters. Common cumin is white cumin. It is botanically known as Cuminum cyminum. Its darker-colored sibling is known as black cumin or Cuminum nigrum. Both have been sold in the bazaars of central Asia for millennia. They were and are popular in spice markets in the rest of the world and found in many marketplaces in China. To add to the confusion, some report there is yet another cumin called Imperial cumin. The Mongols used lots of that cumin. But it is not another variety, but rather thin dark brown seeds, and that is black cumin.

Both cumins have many misnomers, not only several spellings. They are frequently sold by any of these and by other outright misinformation. For example, black cumin are often called 'nigella.' However, Nigella sativa, that plant’s botanical name--is another plant completely. It is in another plant family that has its own confusions where it is mistaken for, called, and labeled 'onion seed,' 'black caraway,' 'kalonji,' 'jeer,' 'jeera,' and 'Roman caraway.' No spice with any of these names is black cumin. Not one of them taste like it. Not one of them is a good substitute for cumin, white or black.

Cumin’s little tiny fruits develop from its tiny flowers. These then develop into seeds, white or black. In ancient times, they were used to pay taxes in Rome. The Chinese never used them for that purpose but did, as did many other countries did, incorporate cumin seeds into one or more of their spice mixtures. The Chinese, as did some other cultures, knew about and used cumin seeds as symbols of love and greed, and as gastrointestinal cures. Other countries used them in curry, garam masala, and other mixtures. In China, you can sometimes find cumin ground and in a five-spice mixture.

White and black cumin like warm weather and well-drained, even sandy soil. Both produce huge numbers of flowers on a single plant. The seeds of one of them becomes dark brown and grows to less than a quarter of an inch in length. The seeds of white cumin become light tan and half-again longer. The seeds of either color grow on plants with unusually thin leaves. And the cumin seeds are really a fruit developing from white, mauve, or rose-colored flowers, three to five to a group. When these seeds dry, they split in two, directly down the middle. That is why every cumin seed has one very flat side.

Cumin seeds are very aromatic, even pungent, particularly when just recently dried. They can dominate many dishes used alone or when added in spice mixtures. Some say they have an earthy flavor, others just refer to their flavor as pungent. Almost everyone agrees that using too many cumin seeds makes food both bitter and hot.

The Chinese call cumin xiaohuixiang, though some do refer to cumin as machin. Chinese and English-language dictionaries share uncertainties and differences when discussing this spice. English ones not only spell it the varied ways already discussed, some spell it using the Spanish/Italian name of cumino. There are several ways Chinese write cumin, they can single out the black variety and call it haixiaohuixiang.

Black cumin’s name may be longer and its seed shorter, and there are other differences. It is thinner, darker, and sweeter tasting than its sibling, white cumin. The white one, gets its color-name from the flowers not the seeds, though not all of them are white. The black cumin gets its from the color a few seeds turn, though most remain more of a dark brown.

Both cumins can be used interchangeably in cooking even though their taste differences are small, but nonetheless real. One, the other, or both are found in complex Chinese soups and egg dishes. Both are used in stews, meat and vegetable combinations, and in a few sweet dim-sum-type items. Frequently, either or both are paired with coriander seeds, ground chili peppers, and/or other strong-tasting spices. The use of cumin in lamb is popular, particularly in China’s northern regions where cumin, when coarsely ground with fennel, is often rubbed on meats before cooking them. This particular technique has Mongol origins. In the culinary arena, cumin is also popular when used as a flavoring in wines, liquors, and candies.

In a less than culinary way, the Chinese use cumin, and have since early times, for its reputed health benefits. It was and is a common cure for stomach aches. Chewing cumin seeds is said to aid digestion and control flatulence. Other uses are to increase circulation, reduce blood pressure, and relieve many kinds of stomach cramps. Mixed and ground with a dried herb known as 'dragon root' (Anum maculatum), cumin has another use. It is made into a plaster to put on and treat skin infections. This plaster, when made, is mixed with oil or wine, or water.

The Chinese ingest cumin for these and other medicinal purposes, but in small amounts. They use both the seed or its volatile fatty oil. It is thought to be an aphrodisiac, and believed valuable for blood clotting. When ground and the oil extracted, it is also popular when mixed with other drugs, sometimes to mask their less-than-pleasant flavors. In addition, cumin was and is a common addition to facial fixes we call cosmetics.

Try cumin in any or all of the following recipes or try it your own way. Enjoy this very strong spice, but use it in moderation. It is good in ever so many Chinese dishes, and it really does add considerable complexity when just a hint of it can be tasted.
Lamb Shanks with Cumin
3 Tablespoons corn or another vegetable oil
3 small to medium-sized lamb shanks (about 1½ pounds)
6 whole garlic cloves
1/2 cup mushroom soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 to 3 Tablespoons whole cumin seeds
2 whole coriander seeds
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1. Heat oil in a heavy pot and fry the lamb shanks, one at a time, until they are brown on all sides.
2. Add garlic, mushroom soy, rice wine, sugar, black pepper, and the cumin and coriander seeds, and a cup of cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, return the lamb shanks to the pot, and cover it.
3. Simmer for two hours covered, then uncover and simmer another half to one hour or until the lamb falls off the bones when touched with a fork. When it does, remove the lamb from the liquid, and allow it to cool somewhat.
4. Return the lamb to the pot., bring the liquid to the boil and be sure the lamb is hot. Add the cornstarch mixture and allow it to thicken, and then serve.
Pan-fried Noodles, Northern Style
1/4 cup dried corn kernels
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 Tablespoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 dry red chili, seeded and crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon dark or mushroom soy sauce
4 cups cooked, cooled noodles (not too thin, preferred)
3 Tablespoons minced Yunnan (or Smithfield or another dry-cured) ham
1. Soak corn kernels overnight in warm water, then drain and dry with paper towels. If using fresh or canned corn, heat an oven to 300 degrees, turn the oven off and put the kernels in to dry for an hour.
2. Heat oil and fry cumin, white pepper, and crushed chili pepper for half a minute, no more. Then add the coriander, and corn, mix well, and fry for another half minute.
3. Add soy sauce and the noodles, and toss until the noodles are heated through, then add the ham and serve.
Beef with Cumin
10 slices of boneless beef loin, about half pound
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper or Sichuan pepper powder
3 slices fresh ginger, minced fine
1/2 scallion, white part only, minced fine
1 teaspoon ground star anise
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/4 cup water chestnut flour
1 cup corn oil
1. Hit each meat slice with the flat side of the cleaver blade to thin and flatten it out. Then cut each in half.
2. Fry cumin and salt in a wok for two minutes until very fragrant. Set aside to cool, then mix with the cornstarch, and set this aside.
3. Mix pepper, ginger, scallion, and star anise, then stir in the wine. Use this mixture to wet all sides of the meat, brushing it on or spreading with fingers works best. Allow the meat to rest for half an hour.
4. Next, rub the cumin mixture on all meat surfaces, then dust liberally with water chestnut flour. Set the meat aside covered, in the refrigerator, for an hour.
5. Heat oil, and fry the meat, until lightly browned. Do this in two batches for most crispness. Drain on paper towels, put them on a platter and serve.
Pickled Cabbage
1 small head white cabbage; about one and a half pounds
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
4 dried red chili peppers, seeded and crushed
1 teaspoon cumin
1. Cut cabbage into one to two inch pieces, then rinse and shake them dry.
2. Toss cabbage pieces with salt and let rest for an hour.
3. Mix peppers and cumin, then mix well with the cabbage.
4. Pack them tightly into a clean jar (washed out just before using with boiling water). Put in a dark place, such as a closet, for five to seven days, then serve.
Bean Curd with Salt and Spices
4 firm pieces of bean curd (about a pound)
1 envelope chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, smashed with end of cleaver handle
1 Tablespoon fresh coriander, minced
1 small dried chili pepper, seeded and crushed
1/2 sheet green seaweed, crushed or ½ teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 cup corn oil, for frying
1. Cut each piece of bean curd into four pieces.
2. Mix all rest of the ingredients well, gently toss with the cubes of bean curd. Try to have some of this mixture on all sides. Set it aside for half an hour.
3. Heat oil and fry the cubes of bean curd a few at a time; do not overcrowd the wok or pan; and keep stirring them until lightly browned. The drain on paper towels, and do the next batch. It is best to do this in three or four batches. When all are fried, serve.
Lamb Ribs, Northern Style
1/2 cup oil
1 pound lamb ribs, cut into two-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 Tablespoon whole cumin, crushed with end of cleaver handle
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel, crushed--with end of the cleaver handle
1 teaspoon chili sauce
1. Heat oil and fry lamb ribs until golden brown, constantly stirring them. Drain and cool for about half an hour, reserving the oil.
2. Mix garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, and fennel, then add the cornstarch and rub this mixture on all sides of the lamb ribs. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.
3. Take two tablespoons of the reserved oil, and heat, they fry ribs again, for about five minutes. Add half cup of water and continue to fry, stirring constantly, until all the water is either absorbed or evaporated; then serve.

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