My friends and family might roll their eyes at the frequency they’ve heard me state the title of this post, but given cumin’s importance in the cuisines of the world, it bears repeating. The spice’s ubiquitous place around the globe dates back to the Old Testament. Seeds excavated in India have been dated to the second millennium BC. Egyptians used it as a spice as well as one of the many ingredients required for mummification. Its heavy use in Greek, Roman and Assyrian cuisines help earn its place in the pantheon of spices.
“Once it has been introduced into a new land and culture, cumin has a way of insinuating itself deeply into the local cuisine, which is why it has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world,” writes Gary Nabhan, author and social science researcher at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, in his recent book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans.
Nabhan’s book is really a much broader look at the spice trade and its relationship to history and culture. But cumin earned a spot in the title “because it is so demonstrative of culinary globalization,” Nabhan writes.
Cumin has also literally been popular since the dawn of written history.
In English, at least, cumin has a singular distinction – it is the only word that can be traced directly back to Sumerian, the first written language. So when we talk about cumin, we are harkening back to the Sumerian word gamun, first written in the cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago.
Cumin’s popularity in ancient Mesopotamia is also evident in the world’s oldest recipe collection, the so-called Yale Culinary Tablets, which date to about 1750 BC. Written in what is now southern Iraq, the tablets attest to the Mesopotamians’ taste for highly spiced food with lots of onions, garlic and kamûnu, as cumin was called in Akkadian, the Semitic language the recipes were written in.
Cumin takes pride of place in Xandari Harbour’s Restaurant 51, from our versions of typical Kerala cuisine to our exuberant expressions of Malabar Soul Food.
Thanks again to NPR’s the Salt for sharing our exuberance about cumin.