In India cumin is known in as jeera or jira or sometimes zira but in Pakistan it is known as zeera. The use of cumin is very common in Indian and Pakistani foods.
The English "cumin" derives from the French "cumin", which was borrowed indirectly from Arabic "كمون" Kammon via Spanish comino during the Arab rule in Spain in the 15th century. The spice is native to Arabic-speaking Syria where cumin thrives in its hot and arid lands. Cumin seeds have been found in some ancient Syrian archeological sites. The word found its way from Syria to neighbouring Turkey and nearby Greece most likely before it found its way to Spain. Like many other Arabic words in the English language, cumin was acquired by Western Europe via Spain rather than the Grecian route. Some suggest that the word is derived from the Latin cuminum and Greek κύμινον. The Greek term itself has been borrowed from Arabic. Forms of this word are attested in several ancient Semitic languages, including kamūnu in Akkadian. The ultimate source is believed to be the Sumerian word gamun.
A folk etymology connects the word with the Persian city Kerman where, the story goes, most of ancient Persia's cumin was produced. For the Persians the expression "carrying cumin to Kerman" has the same meaning as the English language phrase "carrying coals to Newcastle". Kerman, locally called "Kermun", would have become "Kumun" and finally "cumin" in the European languages.
In Northern India and Pakistan, cumin is known as jeera or jira or sometimes zira; in Southern India it is called Jeerige (ಕನ್ನಡ (Kannada)) or jeeragam (Tamil சீரகம்) or jilakarra (Telugu); in Iran and Central Asia, cumin is known as zira; in Turkey, cumin is known as kimyon;in northwestern China, cumin is known as ziran. In Arabic, it is known as al-kamuwn (ال). Cumin is called kemun in Ethiopian, and is one of the ingredients in the spice mix berbere.
It is an herbaceous annual plant, with a slender branched stem 20-30 cm tall. The leaves are 5-10 cm long, pinnate or bipinnate, thread-like leaflets. The flowers are small, white or pink, and borne in umbels. The fruit is a lateral fusiform or ovoid achene 4-5 mm long, containing a single seed. Cumin seeds are similar to fennel and anise seeds in appearance, but are smaller and darker in colour.
Cumin's distinctive flavour and strong, warm aroma is due to its essential oil content. Its main constituent and important aroma compound is cuminaldehyde (4-isopropylbenzaldehyde). Important aroma compounds of toasted cumin are the substituted pyrazines, 2-ethoxy-3-isopropylpyrazine, 2-methoxy-3-sec-butylpyrazine, and 2-methoxy-3-methylpyrazine.
Today, cumin is identified with Indian, Tex-Mex, Cuban and Northern Mexican cuisine. It is used as an ingredient of curry powder. Cumin can be found in some Dutch cheeses like Leyden cheese, and in some traditional breads from France. It is also commonly used in traditional Brazilian cuisine. In herbal medicine, cumin is classified as stimulant, carminative, and antimicrobial.
Cumin can be used to season many dishes, as it draws out their natural sweetnesses. It is traditionally added to curries, enchiladas, tacos, and other Middle-Eastern, Indian, Cuban and Mexican-style foods. It can also be added to salsa to give it extra flavour. Cumin has also been used on meat in addition to other common seasonings. The spice is a familiar taste in Tex-Mex dishes and is extensively used in the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. Cumin was also used heavily in ancient Roman cuisine.
Cultivation of cumin requires a long, hot summer of 3-4 months, with daytime temperatures around 30°C (86°F); it is drought tolerant, and is mostly grown in mediterranean climates. It is grown from seed, sown in spring, and needs fertile, well-drained soil.
Cumin is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. The cumin plant grows to 30-50 cm (1-2 ft) tall and is harvested by hand.
Cumin seeds are often ground up before being added to dishes.
Cumin seeds are also often toasted by being heated in an ungreased frying pan to help release their essential oils.
Cumin tea is also believed to help induce labor in a woman who has gone post-dates with her pregnancy.
In Sri Lanka, toasting cumin seeds and then boiling them in water makes a tea used to soothe acute stomach problems.
Cumin has been in use since ancient times. Seeds, excavated at the Syrian site Tell ed-Der, have been dated to the second millennium BC. They have also been reported from several New Kingdom levels of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
Originally cultivated in Iran and Mediterranean region, cumin is mentioned in the Bible in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:27) and the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). It was also known in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin fell out of favour in Europe except in Spain and Malta during the Middle Ages. It was introduced to the Americas by Spanish colonists.
Cumin is hotter to the taste, lighter in colour, and larger than caraway (Carum carvi), another umbelliferous spice that is sometimes confused with it. Many European languages do not distinguish clearly between the two. For example, in Czech caraway is called 'kmín' while cumin is called 'římský kmín' or "Roman caraway." In Swedish, caraway is called "kummin" while cumin is "spiskummin", spis meaning "stove". Some older cookbooks erroneously name ground coriander as the same spice as ground cumin.