Did you know that every time you add spices to your meal, you’re actually boosting its nutritional content without adding to its calorie content? There’s a wide variety of spice available today, but here’s one that will surely get your attention: cumin.
Cumin is loved by many not only for its versatility in the kitchen, but also because of the many health benefits it offers. Keep reading to find out why this spice is highly deserving of a place in your spice rack.
What Is Cumin?
Dubbed as the second most popular spice in the world (next to black pepper),1 cumin (Cuminum cyminum) comes from a small flowering herbaceous plant from the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family,2 which also includes parsley, fennel and hemlock.3
The plant, which grows about 1 to 2 feet tall, is actually native to the Middle-East Asian region, but is now grown all over the world.
The aromatic seeds are the part of the plant that’s most widely utilized. These cumin “seeds,” which are actually the plant’s small dried fruits,4 look very similar to caraway seeds. They’re yellow-brown, oblong-shaped and longitudinally ridged.5
Cumin powder is made from these seeds. You can actually use both whole and ground cumin seeds, which are both available all year round, for culinary purposes.
Today, cumin is a spice that’s highly valued in different cuisines. Mexicans, Indians and North Africans love using it to add color and flavor to their dishes. Cumin is also a primary component of curry powder, blended with other herbs and spices.
But what exactly does cumin taste like? According to the George Mateljan Foundation, cumin adds a nutty and peppery flavor to foods.6 Cumin seeds’ strong flavor also adds a warm perception on your taste buds, mainly due to the essential oils they contain.7
The Countless Health Benefits of Cumin
Cumin seeds’ health benefits mainly come from their phyto-chemicals, which are touted to have carminative, antioxidant and anti-flatulent properties. They’re also an excellent source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, E, B and C and antioxidant carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin. Health-promoting minerals in cumin include:8
• Iron and copper: both minerals are essential for red blood cell production and formation.
• Zinc: It’s a co-factor that’s needed by enzymes that work to regulate digestion, growth and development and nucleic acid synthesis.
• Potassium: A crucial component of cells and body fluids, and is necessary for controlling blood pressure and heart rate.
• Manganese: A co-factor for superoxide dismutase, which is a powerful antioxidant enzyme.
Considering its small size, it’s absolutely impressive that cumin benefits your overall health, and may even help alleviate ailments, such as:
• Stress: A 2011 animal study published in the Pharmaceutical Biology journal found that cumin helped inhibit stress-induced biochemical changes in rats, which also improved their memory and cognition. According to the study authors:9
"This study provides scientific support for the anti-stress, antioxidant, and memory-enhancing activities of cumin extract and substantiates that its traditional use as a culinary spice in foods is beneficial and scientific in combating stress and related disorders."
• Respiratory disorders: Its anti-congestive effects may be beneficial for people with asthma and bronchitis. This spice also works as an expectorant that loosens mucus and phlegm in the respiratory tract.10
• Sleeping disorder: One curious characteristic of cumin is that although it’s a stimulant, it can also work as a relaxant, making it potentially helpful for alleviating insomnia.11
• Diabetes: Research is still ongoing, but animal studies found that cumin may help reduce the risk of hypoglycemia. The test subjects who were given cumin seeds had a sharp decline in hypoglycemia, as well as a decrease in glycosuria.
• Cancer: Cumin may have anticancer properties, as it stimulates the secretion of chemopreventive and detoxifying enzymes from the glands.
What Is Cumin Used For?
Cumin’s uses as a culinary spice have been well-known ever since the ancient times, but did you know that there are other uses for it as well? Ancient Egyptians used cumin to mummify pharaohs, while in the Bible, it was mentioned that the spice was given to priests as tithes.
Cumin even became a symbol of love and fidelity. Guests attending a wedding carried cumin in their pockets, while wives sent off their soldier husbands to war with cumin bread. Meanwhile, Arabs believed that a concoction made from ground cumin, honey and pepper works as an aphrodisiac.12
But aside from being added to food, cumin was highly valued for its traditional medicinal uses. The seeds, for example, are used to make a drink that can help relieve flatulence and indigestion.13
Cumin Recipes: What Is Cumin Used for in Cooking?
Today, the most popular use for cumin is as a seasoning or condiment, adding a deep flavor to various recipes. This spice is a mainstay in curries, rice dishes like biriyani and pulao and Indian vegetarian dishes like jeera dal.14
Cumin seeds, aside from being added to curry powder, can be mixed in barbecue sauces and soups, rubbed on meats prior to grilling or roasting, or for pickling foods.15 Cumin also goes well with lentils, garbanzo beans and black beans, its hearty flavor complementing the mild flavor of these foods.16
Ideally, cumin seeds should be gently toasted or roasted before adding them to dishes. Another tip: Only grind the seeds when you’re ready to use them, to keep its fragrance and flavor intact. Remember that ground cumin is spicy and peppery, so don’t use excessively, especially if you cannot tolerate overly spicy foods.
If you don’t have cumin seeds, you can settle for the powdered form – but what is cumin powder made of? Basically, this is just very finely grinded cumin seeds. Beware, however, as some brands blend the cumin with inferior and adulterated spice mixes. 17 So, if you have the seeds on hand, just make your own homemade cumin powder by grinding them with a mortar and pestle.
If you don’t have whole cumin seeds, don’t worry because there are other spices you can use in its place. Some of the best substitutes for cumin spice are coriander, caraway seeds and chili powder. Start off with only half of these cumin substitutes, and just keep increasing the amount until the dish tastes right.
This spice can also be used to make refreshing and healthy cumin tea that you can drink before bedtime to promote optimal sleep. Simply mix half a teaspoon of ground cumin in a cup of boiled water, cover the container, let sit for 5 minutes and then drink.18
You can easily search for recipes with cumin as one of the standout ingredients. Here’s one from All Recipes you can try:19
Grilled Tomato and Cumin Salsa
- 12 roma tomatoes
- 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 1 small onion, quartered
- 1 green chili
- 1 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- A handful of chopped fresh coriander
1. Preheat the grill.
2. Place the tomatoes, onion, chili and garlic in a medium-sized baking dish, and then drizzle with coconut oil.
3. Grill for 5 to 10 minutes, or until outsides of vegetables are charred. Make sure to check them frequently to avoid burning.
4. Remove the vegetables from the stove. Remove and throw out the chili stem, tomato cores and garlic skins.
5. Use a food processor to chop the charred vegetables coarsely. Transfer to a bowl and add the cumin, lime juice, Himalayan salt and coriander.
How to Grow Cumin at Home
Growing cumin is easy if the weather conditions in your area meet the plant’s requirement. Ideally, cumin grows best in places with long, hot summers (three to four months), where temperatures reach 85 degrees F (29 degrees C) in the daytime. Sow the cumin seeds during springtime, in rows that are two feet apart. The plant grows best in fertile, well-draining soil.
If you live in a place with a cooler climate, however, plant the seed indoors four weeks before the last spring frost. Sow them shallowly, at least a quarter inch below the surface. The cumin seeds should be kept moist during germination. Once the temperatures have exceeded 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), or higher, transplant them outdoors.
After the small white or pink flowers have blossomed, you can then harvest the cumin seeds by hand. Make sure they are brown. The best time to harvest is in the morning, as this is when the aroma and flavor of cumin is strongest.20 Once harvested, store the seeds in an airtight container and keep in a cool and dark place. Once ground, use it immediately before it loses its flavor.21
Give Cumin Essential Oil a Try, Too
Cumin can also be enjoyed as an essential oil. This is produced through steam distillation of dried and crushed cumin seeds. Like its raw spice form, cumin oil also provides body-wide benefits, if used in aromatherapy. The valuable components of this oil mainly come from health-promoting compounds like cymene, cuminic acid, dipentene, phellandrene, pinene and limonene.22 Here are some of cumin oil’s benefits:
• Kills bacteria. It can potentially ease bacterial infections in the stomach, colon, urinary tract, intestines, as well as external infections in open wounds, ears or eyes.
• Has a tonic effect. It can tone up your tissues, muscles and skin, as well as your circulatory, digestive, respiratory and excretory systems.
• Alleviates convulsions, stress and anxiety.
• Removes toxins from your body. This oil is an efficient detoxifier that can help eliminate uric acid and synthetic chemicals from your system.
• Helps clean wounds. Cumin oil can help prevent wounds from becoming septic.
Before using cumin oil, make sure that you dilute it first in a safe carrier oil like olive or coconut oil. It may lead to skin sensitivity in some individuals, so do a skin patch test prior to using it. Do not use if any allergic reactions occur. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children should get a physician’s permission prior to using this essential oil. Cumin oil may also be phototoxic, so refrain from going out into the sun for up to 12 hours after using it topically.23