Ink on my Apron: Cumin cue
Take your cumin cue from some of these world cuisines and introduce this acquired note to your cooking with some of these dishes.
Growing up, the irony of my mother’s efficient streak in the kitchen was never lost on me. For someone who didn’t know her, her gleaming arsenal of carefully labelled jars distinguishing coriander from cumin powder and finely ground black pepper might have one justified in believing that this was a novice. On the contrary, she is, and always has been, a lady who is an instinctive cook. She resorted to thrifty and timesaving tweaks over the monotony of submitting to muscle memory and could tell whether something was satisfactorily seasoned purely by smell.
My tentative foray into the kitchen was slightly more mechanical. I’d follow recipes down to the two-inch stick of cinnamon, convinced that a slightly larger quantity would make everything go askew. The spice cabinet was a tricky terrain that I understood, very early on, had to be negotiated - either played up or tamed into submission - depending on the need of the hour. I remember sticking my head into our wooden cabinet, lined with faded newspapers and taking a long, heady whiff. This, however, is where any likely parallels between myself and Aishwarya Rai - as immigrant shopkeeper and clairvoyant Tilo in The Mistress of Spices who hands out pouches of “sandalwood to dispel painful memories and black cumin seed to protect against evil eye” - end.
I think I first truly gained the confidence to exercise a certain degree of creative license with spices after about four years of cooking by the book to speak. I realised that while an uninhibited heavy-handedness would not be misplaced when cooking regional Indian cuisines, others such as Iranian and Lebanese were where one displayed restraint, allowing the goodness of star ingredients to shine through. While peppercorns were meant to fleck a Mediterranean stew, they needed to overpower and make one’s nose tingle and sinuses open while eating a bold Malyali beef pepper roast.
Cumin, however, was the first real spice whose versatility and range I grew to slowly understand, appreciate and embrace wholeheartedly. Left to splutter with dried red chillies and mustard seeds, it worked as the emboldening component of your everyday yellow dal’s tadka. Sautéed with onions, garlic, celery and carrots, it added an unexpected warmth to a chilli con carne, allowing minced meat to evade its expected bland fate. Dry roasted and given a blend, it is, questionably, one of the most distinct spices to be added to the signature Lebanese seven spice mix. Last week, I also learned that cumin’s rather unexpected reach extends to Chinese cuisine while taking a bite of a stir-fried lamb dish. I pride myself on my palate and was quick to detect the notes of cumin – a spice, which I till then had never associated with Chinese food in its most well-known avatar.
A quick spot of research left me with the knowledge that these seeds were used as potent flavouring agents in northern and western China, which seems to be a little known fact. Cumin seeds are believed to have come to China via what is referred to as the “silk route”. Interestingly, they were among the few spices to travel both eastward to China and westward to Europe and the Middle East.
The origin of cumin is much contested with some historians citing that it originated from India while still others attribute it to having come from Iran and China. The confusion infiltrated into its etymology as well and in western literature, the seeds are seen to be referred to as both cumin and cummin. Common cumin is white cumin, which is botanically known as cuminum cyminum and its darker-hued variety is known as black cumin or cuminum nigrum. The tiny cumin fruit develops from its flowers, which go on to become white or black seeds. While cumin was once used as a means of paying taxes in ancient Rome, its use these days is mostly restricted to cooking and various spice mixes such as Indian garam masala and Chinese five-spice. The health benefits of cumin are noteworthy too and it is seen as a common cure for stomach aches, improved digestion and the controlling of flatulence.
Take your cumin cue from some of these world cuisines and introduce this acquired note to your cooking with some of these dishes:
Jeera rice, India:
There is something about the fragrant scent of long-grained flavoured Basmati rice being cooked with dry aromatics that has even seasoned carb-cutters going weak in the knees, and jeera rice is perhaps the best example of this. Cumin seeds are toasted in hot oil and rice and salt are added. Water is then poured over this mixture and it is allowed to boil with a covered lid. Finishing touches usually include finely chopped coriander leaves or fried onions.
While two states in Mexico – Puebla and Oaxaca - stake their claim to being the creators of mole, other regions also make their own riffs. Moles come in various flavours and ingredients but chili peppers are the common binding factor. It is mole poblano, however, with its dark red or brown sauce that has really put Mexico on the map and become a culinary symbol of Mexico’s mestizaje or mixed indigenous and European heritage.
The most common elements featured in a mole sauce are a fruit, chili pepper, nut and spices such as cumin, black pepper and cinnamon.
As with most cuisines that are advocates of low and slow cooking, cumin is largely introduced at an early stage of the cooking process with Mexican food, thereby taking the sharp edge off. It is used more sparingly as a spice than in Indian curries, but adds an inimitable warmth. Some other popular dishes that showcase cumin to its best advantage are Caldillo Duranguense, enchiladas, Gallina Borracha and carnitas.
Yang Rou Chuar, China:
If there were one region to have truly mastered the use of cumin in China it would be Xinjiang; just about every northern Chinese city prides itself on Uighurs from Xinjiang who run restaurants and street stalls where yang rou chuar is a mainstay. Thin pieces of mutton are coated with generous amounts of fat and marinated with cumin and dried chillies, which are then skewered and grilled.
Jehan Nizar is a Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com.