What is Cumin?
Cumin, or “Kamuun” in Arabic, is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. It is one of the most famous and indigenous herbs to Upper Egypt since long ago. The best is the black cumin seed, grown in Egypt under almost perfect conditions, in oases where they are watered until the seed pods form. In ancient Egypt, cumin was not only used as a culinary spice, but also for health and beauty. A bottle of black cumin oil was even found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun and it is said that Cleopatra used black cumin for its health and beauty giving qualities.
Cumin has a considerable reputation in helping reduce intestinal gas caused by uneasy digestion and as a remedy for colic and dyspeptic headache (caused by disturbance in digestion). Applied externally as a plaster, it eases stitches and pain in the side and has been combined with other herbs to form a stimulating liniment. Black cumin seeds mixed with honey and garlic are excellent tonics for people with asthma or coughs as well as those who want to enhance their immunity during cold and flu season or when an infection is setting in. for colic and dyspeptic headache (caused by disturbance in digestion).
Shopping for Cumin in the Red Sea
If you cannot read Arabic, you might not be able to identify cumin at the local shops. After all the spice packets have been lying in a pile on top of one another, you might not even be able to smell a difference in the spices. So, instead of grabbing the wrong spice, make your life easier and ask the nice shopkeeper “Fee Kamuun?” (meaning: “is there cumin?”) and he/she will surely find it for you. Almost every shop will carry cumin and it’s inexpensive for a fairly large package.
Cooking with Cumin
Here in Egypt, cumin is used to season Foul Medammes (boiled, mashed broad beans), Falafel or Tamiya (fried balls of ground broad beans, chickpeas, coriander and parsley) and many other foods. In other parts of the world, cumin can be found in Mexican beans and chilies and North African couscous – the Dutch even use it for making Kümmel liquor, and it is also used as a pickling spice. When using cumin in the kitchen, one word of advice - less is more. The spice has a powerful taste so go lightly when improvising until you know how much you prefer. To really bring out the flavor, first toast the whole cumin seeds in a dry pan before use.
Make a cup of warming and soothing cumin tea by boiling seeds in water and then letting them steep for 8-10 minutes. This is good for upset stomach or indigestion.
Egyptian “Dukkah” (spice mixture)
100g/4oz sesame seeds, 100g/4oz blanched almonds, 50g/2oz coriander seeds, 10g/½oz cumin seeds,1 tsp salt, ½ tsp ground black pepper, bread, olive oil. Toast all the seeds and almonds together in a hot dry pan. Keep stirring until fragrant. Cool then coarsely grind with the salt and pepper. To serve, dip the bread into the olive oil and then into the dukkah.