The first bottle of cumin that I purchased lasted well over 20 years. Living in the Annapolis Valley in the mid-1970s, I read several books on world cuisines, including one on cooking Middle Eastern foods, and rapidly learned that I needed spices that were not available locally.
I compiled a shopping list for a friend who was travelling to Toronto, and while she couldn’t access everything on the list, one of the items she came back with was cumin seed, enough to fill a jam jar. I used a few of them and then forgot about them for a while . . . quite a while. The jar of seeds languished in my spice drawer since I can’t bear to throw out things I might use someday, and sure enough, I eventually used them up. No doubt they had lost much of their potency, as they are said to keep for up to three years when stored properly. But, they still had a pronounced cumin flavour decades later.
I am now buying both cumin seeds and ground cumin quite often, as Canadian cuisine and my own cooking style evolve. It makes sense that cumin has made its way into Canadian cooking in a big way. It has been flavouring foods for centuries and has a strong presence in numerous cuisines that influence the way we cook today.
Cumin originated in the Middle East and is mentioned several times in the Bible. Cumin seeds were found in the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the Egyptians used cumin in the mummifying process before they settled on cinnamon and cloves.
In Roman times, it was popular as both a flavouring agent and a medicine. The Romans used it the way we use black pepper, and Pliny called it the best appetizer of all condiments. It symbolized avarice and greed to the Romans, and to say that someone had eaten cumin was to imply they were miserly.
Although it fell out of favour in 20th century England, it had been used there since the 13th century. Not only did people appreciate the flavour, they also attributed to cumin the power to maintain strong relationships. During the Middle Ages in England, it was believed that cumin would prevent lovers from becoming fickle.
Similarly, in medieval Germany the bride and groom carried cumin, dill and salt in their pockets on their wedding day to ensure marital fidelity.
Cumin came to North America, specifically to the Rio Grande area, by way of Spanish explorers. That likely explains how it came to be an important component of Latin American cookery. Whether we were aware of it or not, the first taste of cumin for many, including me, was in chili con carne, for cumin is a key ingredient in chili powder.
This homemade chili power can be used in chili, tacos and other Tex-Mex recipes. Adjust the saltiness to your preference and control the heat by using different types of dried chiles. I have not found a big variety of types in Charlottetown, but you can find some dried chiles in the bulk food store.
Mexican Chili Powder
From Hemphill, Ian and Kate Hemphill: “The Spice & Herb Bible, Third Edition”. Robert Rose Inc., Toronto, 2014.
25 mL (5 tsp) mild, medium or hot ground red chile
15 mL (3 tsp) ground cumin
10 mL (2 tsp) sweet paprika
5 mL (1 tsp) dried rubbed oregano, optional
5 mL (1 tsp) fine sea salt (or to taste)
Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir well to ensure even distribution. Transfer to an airtight container and store, away from extremes of heat, light and humidity, for up to 1 year.
Cumin is also part of other spice blends, including curry powders, harissa paste blends and ras el hanout,.
The flavour of cumin, either as part of a blend or on its own, is sweet and earthy. I was surprised to read that it is sometimes used in sweet shortbread cookies - an interesting possibility to try next time I bake some.
In the meantime, I will continue to use cumin in chili, curries and soups, and I expect it to appear in many of the recipes that are developed in support of International Year of Pulses.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.