Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Aug

Smart Spice: Cumin

What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are pungent, potent little things with the ability to significantly change the trajectory of a dish. They are featured prominently in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines. Back in the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and most accessible – condiments for the spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers going off to war with loaves of cumin bread in their satchels for good luck. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, and it was used extensively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, and just about everyone in that region. It is not to be confused with caraway, which is actually called “cumin” in multiple European languages. They are somewhat similar in taste and appearance, but cumin is spicier and, in my opinion, tastier.

As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more. Note that many of the surnames in the following PubMed links are of Indian origin. Cumin, along with ghee and a host of other spices, played a prominent role in the Ayurvedic medicinal traditions, and I love seeing a lot of these supposedly “old wives’ tales” get preliminary scientific justification:

  • The jury is still out on whether dietary AGEs are worrisome, but it’s clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger concern, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective at reducing blood glucose and AGE production than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug.
  • Cumin’s anti-glycation properties proved useful in another study, in which diabetic rats were able to stave off cataracts after oral dosing with cumin powder.
  • Another study found that cumin extract reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, and pancreatic inflammatory markers in diabetic rats. It also prevented excessive weight loss. Again, it beat out glibenclamide.
  • Oral doses (25, 50, 100, 200 mg/kg) of cumin on consecutive days improved the immune response of mice with compromised immune systems due to restraint-induced stress. These effects were marked by a reduction in elevated cortisol and adrenal gland size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
  • An extract of cumin had anti-osteoporotic effects on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Cumin-dosed (orally, 1 mg/kg) osteoporotic rats had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
  • Cumin protected the livers of rats from ethanol- and rancid sunflower oil-induced toxicity.
  • One study even seems to suggest a role for cumin in weaning addicts off of opiates – here – by reducing tolerance (yeah, it could increase the subjective high, but it would mean less product was required) and dependence.
  • Antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “potent.” It’s unclear whether the same holds true for cumin in other countries, but I imagine it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed, if possible, as ground cumin (and anything, really) will be more exposed to the air and thus more liable to degrade. If you’ve got ground cumin, store it in the fridge in an airtight, sealed container. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron skillet over low heat for a couple minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let them burn; you’ll know it when you smell it, because it’s somewhat reminiscent of a fine body odor), but one study found that microwaving whole cumin seeds actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditional oven roasting. Go figure.

So, what can you do with the stuff besides make curries?

Curries are great and expected places to insert cumin, of course, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to act as a replacement for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it, so why not treat it like that yourself and add it to things you’d otherwise never think to? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade stock for a nice hot drink before bed. If you’d eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not for any health benefits, necessarily, but just for a nice change of pace. My latest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just did a batch of bone-in short ribs like that with homemade beef broth, as a slight alteration of Richard Nikoley’s excellent short rib recipe, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it.

How do you use cumin? Have you used it? And don’t say “in curries”; I want some new stuff to try!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. A simple bowl of cooked blueberries with a bit of sugar to sweeten them taste AMAZING with cumin…my new favorite, healthy dessert! :)

    Ashley wrote on November 28th, 2011
  2. I put cumin on my fried eggs, lots of flavor!

    Megi wrote on January 29th, 2012
  3. I love seasoning chicken with broth made with sauteed onions, cumin, black pepper and salt! It adds wonderful flavor to egg tortilla as well.

    just stoppin by wrote on January 31st, 2012
  4. TEA. I am drinking it just now. I used to give carraway and anise seed tea to my kids when they were babies and I was nursing them, to reduce flatulence and prevent cramps. I figured boiling cumin seeds for a drink would be close to that. I prefer the taste of carraway/anise tea but this is not bad.

    Anca wrote on February 16th, 2012
  5. Recently, I have developed an interest in Indian cuisine. So I challenged a few main dishes, after researching many Indian cookbooks and watching a few Indian chefs, in action, on YouTube.com.
    After gaining expertise with their well known dishes, like Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Vindaloo (YUMM!) and Tandoori Kabobs, I then tried to make some of the Indian breads, some easy, some requiring practice to perfect. Naan is my favorite.
    End result in my ventures. I found that what I loved, was the aromas that are created and flow throughout the house when preparing a dish. OOOh, the smell of all those spices blending together as you add this one and that one. There’s nothing else that compares.
    From my new experience of so many new spices introduced to my palate and cooking knowledge, there are two spices which I now incorporate more frequently. Both with some of my own favorite dishes and on an experimental nature with other foods as well.
    After all is said, the two winners for me are: tumeric powder and cumin , ground and in whole seed form.

    I have always been a lover of rice, but now, I am a lover of rice with a generous dose of tumeric and cumin seeds. And I’m healthier for it.

    jazzigal wrote on April 3rd, 2012
  6. For a wonderful warm drink before bed, that is not only relaxing but also has anti-inflammatory and pain blocking effects, try mixing a generous pinch of cinnamon (I prefer the more pungent Saigon cinnamons), a pinch of cumin, a touch of nutmeg, a touch of ginger, and a sprinkle of cayenne into some milk. Warm it up and sweeten it to taste with honey (I like mesquite honey for this recipe.)

    J Wolfe wrote on June 6th, 2012
  7. How I use cumin: I make rice the usual way, except I mix in a packet of chicken bouillon, then when the rice is cooked and ready I mix in some cumin. It’s delicious!

    Cleo wrote on July 16th, 2012
  8. Use cumin in sauerkraut – instead of caraway. I had this in the Alsace in France – where sauerkraut (choucroute) is a traditional dish. Took me a couple minutes to figure out the taste – we had a very clever chef that night.

    Julia M. wrote on July 31st, 2012
  9. I love to use Cumin alone with chile power to make soups about 2tablespoons each. Alone with chicken cubed I use garlic & onions and every green vegtable I can think of. From broccli to cabbage to greensbeans. It makes alot. I just eat to fill my stomach and the longer it sits, the better is gets.I have never appreciated cumin in eggs, but sounds great.

    Deb Garner wrote on September 18th, 2012
  10. I accidentally bought ground cumin at the store (thinking it was the same as curcumin). Still want to try curcumin since it can possibly help heal spinal cord injuries, but it’s good to know cumin also has health benefits too.

    marie wrote on September 27th, 2012
  11. Well I have an original, and delicious, use for Cumin that no one else has mentioned, perhaps haven´t found out.
    I mix cumin with curry and turmeric with olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, and thats what I flavor my pop-corn with! Full of flavor, lots of fiber and anti-oxidants, good for my health!

    Beatriz Valdes wrote on October 8th, 2012
  12. Aside from the spice being used in cooking…ground cumin will also staunch the flow of blood from small wounds.

    Cheryl Finnigan wrote on October 25th, 2012
  13. In Tortilla soup (I usually eat it sans tortillas with extra avocado and lots of grilled chicken).

    KS wrote on November 4th, 2012
  14. I like the feeling of cumin in my ass

    Duncan wrote on November 5th, 2012
  15. I like the feeling of cumin in my gulidous maxamis.

    Duncan wrote on November 5th, 2012
  16. Cumin goes really well with stuffed peppers. All you have to do is add it to the stuffing you usually make.

    J wrote on November 19th, 2012
  17. There is a recipe from the Greeks who lived in Asia Minor (coast of Turkey) that is called Smyrna sausages (souzoukakia Smirnaika) which is very delicious and easy: Basically, you make meatballs shaped oval rather than round, with minced onion, garlic, parsley, egg, and bread, salt, pepper and cumin. You dredge the in flour and lightly brown them on all sides. Then add them to a pot of tomato sauce with lots of good red wine and cumin, and let them simmer in there until they are cooked. Serve them on top of cooked orzo pasta, and top with a grated cheese of your choice. Feta cheese (look for the authentic one made from *sheep’s* milk and from Greece–Costco and Trader Jo’s both carry it) makes a nice accompaniment.

    A. wrote on December 11th, 2012
  18. Cumin is a staple spice for Northern Mexico foods, or what is known as Mexican food in border states. Cumin is used in caldos (soups), guisados (sauteed then stewed meats/chicken/pork), sauce used for cooking arroz (rice). Without the cumin…there is something missing in the flavor.
    So the basic spices are onion, garlic and cumin for just about everything “Mexican”…..

    Deanna wrote on December 15th, 2012
  19. Cumin in black beans, red beans, bbq sauce, chicken….

    Jennifer wrote on December 26th, 2012
  20. I love to eat cumin or curry on pizza r even better tomato pie!Its excellent!

    Jamie Wags wrote on December 31st, 2012
  21. curious experiment. I sprinkled it on an almost flat cigar and it stimulated combustion besides giving it an incense like aroma in the room. It also seems to be a good remedy for bradychardia or slow beat heart. good luck. but be cautious it burns readily

    josephus wrote on December 31st, 2012
  22. I found this site looking for info on cumin because I love it so much. I put it on and in everything. Eggs, shrimp, chicken, tuna salad…etc….today I made kale chips with cumin and chili powder. It was awesome. Thanks for all the info!

    Amanda wrote on January 12th, 2013
  23. This is my favorite spice. It makes any savory dish better. It ca be used in everything. Have yet to try it in anything sweet, but who knows,

    zhenya solzhenitsyn wrote on January 30th, 2013
  24. Cumin in some Eastern European countries are used to increase breast milk supply.. Works for some people.. Also it is very important ingredient in sauerkraut.

    Elule wrote on February 28th, 2013
  25. i have cumin and pepper on a slice of toast with baked beans and poached eggs EVERY morning, Delisious.

    BRIJAN wrote on March 25th, 2013

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