What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are hot, potent bits with the ability to significantly alter the trajectory of a dish. They are prominently represented in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines.
In the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and accessible – spices for spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers who go to war with cumin bread in their school bags for luck. Cumin is native to the Mediterranean and was used extensively by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and almost everyone in this region.
Cumin versus caraway
It is not a good idea to replace caraway with cumin, or vice versa. They look a bit similar but have very different tastes. Cumin gives Mexican and Middle Eastern recipes their signature flavor, while caraway is the most common ingredient in Eastern European dishes. Cumin seeds are bigger than caraway seeds, and cumin seeds are a warmer spice than caraway seeds.
Cumin is often confused with caraway, which is called “cumin” in several European languages.
Health benefits of cumin
Cumin is one of my top 10 favorite spices, mostly because of the taste, but the health benefits don’t hurt.
As is usually the case with spices that have been used for thousands of years, cumin appears to offer a number of potential health benefits. It contains anti-glycation agents, antioxidants and anti-osteoporotics, and a lot more. Note that many of the last names in the PubMed links below are of Indian origin.
Cumin, along with ghee and a variety of other spices, played a prominent role in Ayurvedic healing traditions, and I love to see how many of these supposedly “old women” tales are tentatively scientifically substantiated:
- The jury is not yet sure if dietary AGEs are of concern, but it is clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger problem, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug, at reducing blood sugar and AGE production.
- The anti-glycation properties of cumin were found to be useful in another study where diabetic rats were able to ward off cataracts after oral administration of cumin powder.
- Another study found that cumin extract lowered total cholesterol, triglycerides, and markers of pancreatic inflammation in diabetic rats. These effects were characterized by a reduction in increased cortisol and adrenal size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and the replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose-dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
- A cumin extract had an anti-osteoporotic effect on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Osteoporotic rats dosed with cumin (orally 1 mg / kg) had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
- Cumin protected the livers of rats from toxicity induced by ethanol and rancid sunflower oil.
- One study even seems to suggest that cumin may help wean opiate addicts from opiates by reducing tolerance (yes, it could increase subjective high, but it would mean less product is needed) and dependence.
- The antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “strong”. It’s unclear if this is the same for cumin in other countries, but I can imagine that it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed if possible, as ground cumin (and anything really) is more air exposed and therefore more likely to break down. If you have ground cumin, store it in an airtight, sealed container in the refrigerator. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron pan over low heat for a few minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let it burn), but one study found that the microwave whole cumin actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditionally Oven roast. Imagine that.
It is believed that some of the health benefits are amplified when you combine cumin seeds with coriander.
Black cumin is not the same as kitchen cumin – its uses are more medicinal.
What is cumin good for?
Curries are great and anticipated places to add cumin seeds, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to serve as a substitute for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it. So why not treat yourself like that and add to things you would otherwise never have thought of? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade broth for a nice hot drink before bed. If you want to eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not necessarily for health reasons, but just for a nice change of pace. My newest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just made a ton of short bone-in ribs with homemade beef broth and it was amazing. I highly recommend it.
Here are some recipes with cumin to star the show:
Fry the cumin and coriander lamb while stirring
Salmon zucchini and lemon skewers
Instant Pot Lamb and Sweet Potato Stew
Cuban Mojo Chicken
How do you pronounce cumin?
Depending on who is speaking, you can hear cumin pronounced as KYOO-min or KOO-min. The official pronunciation is KYOO-min.
Now you know.
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with an original lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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