Cumin - a guide to cumin including culinary uses and recipe ideas.

Cumin is a popular spice particularly in Mexican, North African and Indian cuisines. You will most probably recognise the taste in the unique flavour of chilli con carne, where cumin is one the spices that gives this dish a hot, peppery and spicy kick.

Cumin is also a main component of curry powder and a number of hot spice mixtures including "garam masala" and "baharat", the North African "hot" spice blend that is used as a rub or flavour for lamb and other meat or poultry dishes.
Once extremely popular in European cooking, cumin has since lost its prominence as a favoured spice to other contenders, and nowadays is only used to flavour certain Dutch and French cheeses and breads. However, the Russian liqueur, Kummel, which is still popular today after 400 years, would not be what it is without cumin being one of its main ingredients.

The cumin plant

Cumin is available in two forms, the whole form, which is the cumin seed, or the ground form of the spice.

The cumin plant, Cuminum cyminum is native to the shores of the Mediterranean, including the upper regions of Egypt, where is has been cultivated for thousands of years. Nowadays, it is commercially grown in several surrounding countries such as Iran, Turkey and Syria, as well as other hot countries further a field, namely China, India and Latin America.

The cumin spice is the dried seed of the cumin plant, which is why cumin is also known as cumin seeds and is available in this form. The cumin plant comes from the same plant family as parsley and it is also related to fennel, coriander and dill.

The history of cumin

Cumin is an age-old spice that was favoured by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and particularly the Romans. It is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New.

This spice was not only used as a seasoning but also as a method of payment for taxes and debts.

The Greeks and Romans used cumin in practically every dish, as it was a good substitute for black pepper, which was very expensive and often hard to obtain.

During Biblical times, cumin was used as an antiseptic but has been more recently recognised as an excellent digestive and stomach disorder settler.

Medicinal uses of cumin

Cumin has been used therapeutically for thousands of years and it has a number of healing and curative properties that are listed below. Researchers today are now beginning to look at the components of cumin and study the beneficial effects that cumin has on the body.

Although cumin has long been known for its digestive properties, there are also many other ways in which cumin is said to keep the body healthy and heal the unhealthy body.
  • Cumin is a very good source of iron, which is needed to transport oxygen to all the cells within the body.
  • Cumin helps the body to absorb nutrients efficiently.
  • It is said to be a good general tonic and stimulant for the body.
  • It has been used to treat chest and lung disorders such as pneumonia and coughs.
  • Researchers are studying the anti-carcinogenic properties of cumin. It is found to prevent liver and stomach tumours forming in animals.
  • A paste made from cumin seeds and peppermint oil placed on the abdomen is said to relieve abdominal pains and liver disorders.
  • Cumin relieves flatulence, bloating, gas and other related stomach ailments.
  • Cumin is a diuretic.
  • It can relax muscles and prevent muscle cramps.
  • Cumin is said to help mothers produce more milk to feed their newborn babies.
  • Cumin is sometimes used as an antiseptic and also has antibacterial properties.
  • Cumin can reduce nausea and sickness, even during pregnancy.

Culinary uses of cumin

Cumin is a major spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. It can be used to flavour most meat dishes and is also good with some types of fish.

Whole cumin seeds are often added to lentil and pulse dishes. To bring out the best flavour of the seeds, they are usually toasted in a dry frying pan or with a little butter before adding to other ingredients.

Below are a number of ideas on how to use cumin, whole or ground in your cooking.
  • Cumin is a must for chilli con carne and other Tex-Mex dishes.
  • Add to citrus-flavoured meat or poultry marinades.
  • Use as a rub for lamb or pork.
  • Cumin partners chilli very well.
  • Use cumin for barbeque sauces and marinades.
  • Add cumin seeds to bread or muffin dough or batters.
  • Sprinkle ground cumin into a cheese omelette mixture.
  • Fry with onions and use to flavour lentils.
  • Mix with olive oil and pour over stir-fried vegetables.
  • Add cumin to rice or couscous for an exotic flavour.
  • Add cumin to hot and spicy soups or sauces.
  • Use in curries and chillies.
  • Use in lamb or pork casseroles and stews.
  • Cumin is used in pickles and chutneys.
  • Cumin goes well with vegetables such as courgettes and aubergines.
  • Cumin is used in Falafel, deep-fried chickpea and spice balls.
  • Cumin also goes well with fried or roast potatoes.
  • Use cumin in spicy salads.

Cumin Recipes

Several recipes that include cumin as one of their main ingredients including chilli con carne, falafel and cumin butterfly shrimp.

Cumin Butterfly Shrimp (prawns)

These shrimp are marinated in lots of different spices for several hours and then cooked on a hot grill. Serve with a cooling cucumber and yoghurt salad, as the shrimp are hot and spicy.

  • 16 raw tiger prawns, shelled with tails intact
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 tsp of ground cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp of ground coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp of cardamom seeds
  • 1 tsp of ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 1 crushed clove of garlic
  1. Put 8 wooden skewers in water to soak for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Take a prawn and cut it as far down lengthways as it will go without cutting it in half and flatten out like a butterfly. Repeat with the remaining prawns.
  3. Fix one half of the prawn onto one skewer and carefully secure the other half to another skewer.
  4. Fit another 3 prawns onto this skewer and then repeat with the remaining prawns and skewers. You should end up with 4 sets of double skewers, each holding 4 prawns.
  5. Place the prawns into a glass or earthenware shallow dish and squeeze the lime juice over them.
  6. In a separate mixing bowl, mix together the olive oil, all the spices and the garlic.
  7. Add to the prawns and make sure that each prawn is coated in the spice mixture and the lime juice.
  8. Cover the dish and refrigerate for 4 hours, to give the flavours time to marinate and infuse.
  9. When you are ready to cook the prawns, prepare a hot barbeque or grill.
  10. Place the skewers onto the grill and cook for 5 - 6 minutes, turning the skewers over halfway through.
  11. Serve immediately with a refreshing salad or yoghurt dip.


Falafel are deep-fried croquettes, Middle Eastern-style, which are made from chickpeas and a number of spices including cumin. They are often served inside pitta bread with salad and some kind of sauce.

  • 1½ lb (680 g) of drained chickpeas from a can
  • 3½ oz (100 g) of wholemeal bread
  • 3½ oz (100 g) of wholemeal breadcrumbs
  • 2 small fresh red chillies, chopped
  • 1 chopped red onion
  • 1 egg
  • 3 crushed cloves of garlic
  • 1 tbsp of freshly chopped coriander
  • 1 tsp of ground coriander
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin
  • ½ tsp of turmeric
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • salt and pepper
  1. Place the chickpeas, bread, chillies, garlic, fresh coriander, ground coriander, cumin and turmeric into a food processor and blend together until all the ingredients are finely chopped and mixed together.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Take a little of the mixture and shape into a small ball. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up.
  4. Lightly beat the egg and place into a shallow bowl.
  5. Place the wholemeal breadcrumbs into a separate bowl or dish.
  6. Take one of the falafel balls and firstly dip it into the beaten egg.
  7. Then coat all over with the breadcrumbs. Set aside whilst you repeat with the remaining falafel balls.
  8. Pour enough oil into a deep fryer or a frying pan and heat to a temperature of 350°F (180°).
  9. Add the falafel, a few at a time and fry for 2 - 3 minutes until the breadcrumbs are crispy and brown.
  10. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper to remove any excess oil.
  11. Serve immediately inside a pitta bread, with a cucumber salad or with a refreshing mint dip.

Chilli Con Carne

Chilli con carne is a great recipe for minced beef, especially if you have had enough of spaghetti bolognaise. If possible, prepare the dish one day in advance, so that the flavours have fully developed and matured.

  • 18 oz (510 g) of lean minced beef
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes (400 g)
  • 1 tin of kidney beans (400 g)
  • 1 thinly sliced red chilli
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 glass of red wine
  • 2 tbsp of tomato purée
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 crushed clove of garlic
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin
  • 1 tsp of ground coriander
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • handful of freshly chopped coriander
  • few drops of Worcestershire sauce
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan or heavy-based saucepan.
  2. Add the chopped onion and garlic and fry until soft and translucent.
  3. Add the minced beef, breaking up the meat and ensuring that it browns all over.
  4. Pour in the glass of red wine and mix well. Cook for a few minutes.
  5. Add the sliced chilli, chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, ground cumin, ground coriander, cinnamon stick and the Worcestershire sauce. Stir well.
  6. Season with a little salt and pepper.
  7. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover the pan with a lid and simmer gently for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. After this time, add the chopped coriander and the kidney beans and stir well.
  9. Cook for 10 more minutes with the pan uncovered, stirring frequently.
  10. Remove from the heat and check the seasoning. Add any extra salt or pepper if necessary.
  11. Serve hot with rice, boiled or jacket potatoes or fresh crusty bread.
  12. Alternatively, allow to cool and then refrigerate until the following day, when you can reheat the chilli and serve as above.

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