Cumin Seed in History

If you live in the southwestern United States you have probably assumed that cumin originated in Mexico. This assumption seems reasonable since there is hardly a dish of Mexican origin that does not contain cumin in some form.

As it turns out, cumin comes from the Mediterranean. Some sources indicate that its original plot was in Egypt. Those early Egyptians used cumin seed in their cooking and also in their mummification process. Cumin seeds have been found in tombs dating back 4000 years.

The Greeks used cumin as a condiment, keeping a bowl of the seeds on the dinner table to be enjoyed with bread and wine. This little seed was considered the finest of condiments available to the Greek world in those BC years. Socrates considered it an aid to scholarly pursuits while others sought it out for medicinal purposes: digestive problems and flatulence. (This particular medicinal use continues today in Southern Asia.)

Very little is recorded of the medicinal uses of cumin among the ancients. However, cumin was sought after to the degree that it carried good barter power which is the equivalent of monetary value today. Carrying a large bag of cumin seed was like having a wad of cash in your pocket. Clues to the medicinal use of cumin point mostly to the stomach and digestive issues.

As the use of cumin seed spread through Europe in trade, cumin became the popular and available spice for cooking. It remained so for centuries until the availability and use of caraway seed squeezed it out.

European folklore surrounding cumin indicates belief in the ability of the seed to ensure faithfulness. Consuming the seed or powder was believed to keep a married man from straying, a flock of chickens from wandering from home. In some communities it became common for a bride and groom to carry cumin seed in their wedding ceremony. Many carried cumin in their pockets on any given day. A man going to war drank cumin-enhanced wine before leaving and then carried a loaf of cumin seed bread with him. There are no reports of the effectiveness of all this ceremony. Perhaps a lack of evidence helped with the eclipse of caraway seed over cumin.

When Spanish and Portuguese explorers headed west they carried cumin seed with them. Given the fact that cumin will grow as far north as Norway, there would have been no problem getting this culinary seed started in Mexico and the southwestern United States. What originated in the Mediterranean and became a crucial ingredient in North African and Indian cooking was now poised to become a signature ingredient in Mexican cooking.

Cumin seed has prevailed over thousands of years, never coming close to the endangered species list. It is a key ingredient in the curry powders and garam masala of India, in the chili powder of Mexico and in various adobo recipes found world-wide.

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