CUMIN (Cuminus cyminum – Umbelliferae)

Cumin is a delicate annual plant thought to originate from Egypt, but grown in the Mediterranean area for many years BC and now naturalized in hot countries all over the world – the North African coast, Malta, the Middle East and America. It has a slender and fragile stem, leaves that are divided into narrow strips, and tiny part-umbels of flowers which are white to pinkish purple. The plant later sets the narrow-ridged seed-fruit that are the cumin spice, and the only part of the plant used. These seeds look rather like those of caraway, and indeed they are often confused in Europe: caraway is called cumin des pres in France; cumino holandese (Dutch cumin) in Spain. There is no real resemblance in flavour. The name comes from the Hebrew kammon or Arabic kammun, and later became kuminon in Greek.

There are two types of cumin spice, which are most clearly defined in Indian culinary terminology. Kala or shah zeera is the ‘true’ or black cumin, and this is quite rare and expensive. White cumin, safeid zeera, is the seed more commonly available in ethnic shops and better supermarkets.

Cumin seeds were found in the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. The plant was cultivated by both Ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, much as it is today. It was mentioned in both Old and New Testaments, and the Hebrews also used it in their ceremony of circumcision as an antiseptic.

To the Greeks, cumin was a symbol of selfishness, and they referred to people so avaricious that they would divide everything, even their cumin seeds. Dioscorides thought of it as one of the best aromatics to help with flatulence, and recognized it as a stimulant for the digestive system. The Romans used cumin a great deal in their cooking: to spice their olive oil, to sauce their shellfish and grilled fish, to keep their meat fresh, to spread on bread, and to substitute for pepper. Cumin seeds were also used in digestive cakes at the end of a meal, along with caraway, dill and fennel. Cumin apparently helped congested people regain their normal pale colour, so it was popular with over-eaters and heavy drinkers; Pliny even suggested that this ‘whitening’ property was utilized by scholars wishing to impress their teachers that they were working harder than they actually were! Pierre Pomet, in his book History oj Drugs (1694), recommended cumin for rheumatic conditions in the essential oil form. Nearer our own time, Dr Leclerc classified it as a general tonic for the heart and nervous system. Eugene Perrot, in his 1940s and 1970s researches, found it a tonic and aphrodisiac.


Description: The oil is distilled from the seeds and it is colourless, sometimes with a tinge of yellow which, with age, becomes a deeper yellow. The aroma of the oil is very pungent, reminiscent of anise, but with a very spicy, musky note.
The principal constituents: Cuminol, or cuminic aldehyde, of between 35 and 50 per cent,’ others are cymene, pinene and terpineol.
Dangers: Cumin oil is on the restricted list issued by IFRA, and may cause dermatitis if there is exposure to sunlight or ultra-violet light after use.


In illness
Cumin is a good general tonic, antiseptic and bactericide.

A decoction of the seeds is good for the deafness that often comes after a bad virus flu infection. Boil a good 15 ml (1 heaped tbsp) of the seeds in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 15 minutes. Leave to cool, then strain. Insert a little of the liquid in the ear and repeat a few times a day. Massage behind the ear and on the neck with a mixture of 5 ml (1 tsp) wheatgerm oil and 4 drops cumin oil.
Cumin is most successful for cellulite. For a tisane, crush 5 -10 ml (1 – 2 tsp) cumin seeds slightly, and infuse in 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water for 5 minutes. Drink warm after meals, adding honey if desired.

Cellulite body oil
The only disadvantage of cumin is the smell, which many people dislike, but the addition of orange or lemon oil helps enormously. Do a skin test with this body oil before use and never expose yourself to sunlight or a sun bed after use.

  • 15 ml (1 tbsp) almond oil
  • 2 drops wheatgerm oil
  • 8 drops cumin oil
  • 2 – 3 drops orange or lemon oil

Mix together and use to massage legs, thighs, and tummy area. This oil is also good for before menstruation. Rub on the tummy, and blot after use.

In cookery
Cumin is not much used in European cookery but it is most appreciated in Indian, North African and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Cumin can be bought whole or ground; buy the latter in small portions as the aromatic essential oils fade quickly. To bring out the flavour of the seeds and make them more nutty, toast them quickly in a hot dry pan, this is a common appetizer and digestive in the Middle East.

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