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Flavors of the World: Cumin of the Mediterranean
A Common Thread
At first glance, the triangle-shaped pastry is rather ordinary looking, but as you know, sometimes the most humdrum of packages can contain the most amazing gifts.
You hold the pastry in your hand; the fried dough is sturdy. You take a bite and it shatters in your mouth—an explosion of flaky, buttery pastry. But wait--this is just the beginning!
The filling—the potato is soft and creamy. Peas impart a sweetness, fresh ginger adds bite and a bit of heat. And then there is the spice—garam masala to be specific.
Garam means “warm”, and masala means “spice blend.” A perfect description of this amazing creation of India--cardamom and cinnamon for sweetness, cloves and black pepper for heat, fennel provides a slight lemony touch, and cumin—smoky and earthy.
This, my friends, is the perfect samosa.
Eggplant is the iceberg lettuce of vegetables—meek, bland, and flavorless. It adapts itself to whatever dish it is used in. Think of it is as the extra, the bit player—not even worthy of a supporting actor nod at the Academy Awards.
Unless you take it beyond soft, beyond cooked.
Cook it until done, and then cook it some more. Eggplants should collapse at the merest touch. When you think you have cooked them beyond salvation, they are done. And they are ready to become baba ghanoush—a Middle East dip—a blend of roasted eggplant, tahini, garlic, and cumin.
The sauce is dark, like molten chocolate. The heat is nuanced, warm and smoky. Tomatillos or orange lend a sour tang, raisins give it sweetness, and nuts thicken and add richness. Coriander adds an herbal note and cumin an earthy balance.
May I introduce you to mole—a bold and complex sauce created in Mexican kitchens centuries ago.
One dish from India, one from the Middle East, and one from Mexico, but they all share one thing in common. They would not have their distinctive flavor without the use of cumin.
What is Cumin?
Cumin, the seed of an annual herb, is native to the Mediterranean and Upper Egypt. From there it travelled through the continent of Africa to Asia Minor, Iran, and India. North African Muslims carried it to Spain where it was (and still is) used to flavor stews. From Spain it then travelled to the New World where it became an essential part of Mexican cuisine.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum ), is a member of the Umbelliferae family (which also includes coriander, anise, caraway, dill, and fennel).
This herb is a drought-tolerant tropical or subtropical plant. The optimum growth temperature ranges are between 25 and 30° C. It matures in about 120 days.
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.— Gary Nabhan "Cumin, Camels, and Caravans"
Cumin seeds have been found in Syria, in 4,000 year old excavations near Sippar-Amnanum (the area now known as Tell ed-Der).
Cumin also has the distinction of being the only word that can be traced back to Sumerian—the first written language.
What The Scientists Have to Say
Much research has been conducted on the history of food and civilization. Adam Maskevich is an archaeologist who has worked extensively throughout the Middle East. He has also taught classes on the history of food and cooking in antiquity and the politics of archaeology.He earned a Masters in Near Eastern Studies from John Hopkins University in 2004, and his PhD from Johns Hopkins in May 2014.
In his article From Ancient Sumeria To Chipotle Tacos, Cumin Has Spiced Up The World, Dr. Maskevich tells us that:
Almost a millennium later in the 9th century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II threw a huge feast to celebrate the construction of his new capital, Nimrud, in what is now northern Iraq. Boasting about it in a royal inscription erected in his new palace, Ashurnasirpal lists the massive quantities of food he served to guests from all over his empire, including lots of cumin. It was probably used as a table condiment as it still is throughout the Middle East.
Cumin spread throughout Europe with the Roman Empire and its culinary and (alleged) medicinal qualities continued to be valued throughout the Middle Ages. In 13th-century England, rents were often paid in cumin, and the household of King Henry III would buy it in quantities of 20 pounds at a time.
Using Cumin in Your Kitchen
Cumin is widely available in both whole seed and ground forms. Ground cumin is convenient, but loses its zest over time. Some recipes call for whole cumin seeds; to bring out their best flavor toast them briefly before adding to recipes.
Cumin seems to have a universal appeal--if you have not tried it before, please give one of these recipes a try. And if you have an old, forgotten tin of ground cumin in your pantry, do yourself a favor. Toss it out, purchase a fresh supply, and try one of these recipes today.
Garam masala is a boldly flavored combination of ground spices--and each cook has his or her own idea of what the perfect blend should be. Here is mine:
- 1/2 cup coriander seeds
- 1/4 cup cinnamon stick pieces
- 1/4 cup black peppercorns
- 1/4 cup cumin seeds
- 3 tablespoons whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 3 teaspoons cardamom seeds
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Place all of the spices except for the turmeric and nutmeg on a baking sheet. Bake at 275 degrees F. for 10 minutes or until the spices are fragrant. Place in a food processor and grind fine. Then add along with the turmeric and nutmeg to a blender. Process until a fine powder. Store in a cool dark place in a sealed container.
- 2 cups flour
- 6 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water
- oil for frying
- 4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) (SEE NOTE BELOW)
- 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 cup finely diced yellow onion
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons Garam Masala (purchase or make your own--recipe above)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- To make the dough blend the flour, 6 tablespoons flour, and salt with a fork. Add water and stir to combine. Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured surface; knead until smooth. Wrap in saran wrap and refrigerate for one hour.
- Knead the dough for 1 minute. Cut in half. Cut each half into 12 equal pieces. On lightly-floured surface roll each piece into a 7-inch circle. Cut each circle in half and set aside (you will have 40 half circles of dough).
- To make the filling heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the ghee, potatoes, garlic, onion, and ginger. Reduce heat to low; cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times--don't allow to brown. You are merely cooking the potatoes to soften them.
- Add the remaining ingredients and continue to cook, covered, until the potatoes and peas are tender, about 5 minutes more. Set aside and cool thoroughly before proceeding to the next step.
- To form the samosas take one piece of dough and shape into a cone. Place some of the cooled filling into the cone, moisten the top edge, and then seal.
- Fry in 2 inches of oil at 375 degrees F for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain.
How to Make Ghee
Place one pound of butter in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 10 to 15 minutes or until most of the froth has subsided and the milk solids have fallen to the bottom of the pan. They can brown but do not allow them to burn.
Remove from the heat; allow to cool slightly. Strain through several layers of cheesecloth. Seal in plastic containers. Ghee will keep for several weeks in your refrigerator.
How to Make and Shape Samosas
Following is a video which shows how to make samosas. The recipe that is used is slightly different from the one that I have presented above, but I include it because it is the best video I have ever seen on how to shape samosas.
That key part begins at 6 minutes 10 seconds:
Chicken in Mole Sauce
- 3 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup orange juice
- 4 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, minced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/8 cup raisins
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter
- 4 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 1/2 triangles of Ibarra Mexican chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
- Pour broth and orange juice into a large stockpot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat; brown the chicken thighs in the pan, about 3 minutes per side. (The chicken will not be cooked through). Add the chicken to the broth in the stockpot; simmer 30 minutes. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, in the same sauté pan in which you browned the chicken, cook the onion for 20 minutes or until it is softened and begins to brown. Add the garlic and cook about 2 minutes more.
- Add the almonds, coriander and cumin and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Stir this mixture into the stockpot along with the remaining ingredients (raisins through chipotle pepper).
- Simmer the sauce for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- While the sauce simmers, de-bone the chicken and shred or cut into bite-size pieces.
- Remove sauce from heat. Let cool for 10 minutes and then pour into a blender and puree.
- Pour the pureed sauce back into the stockpot. Stir in the chopped cooked chicken; simmer over low heat until all is reheated. Serve over hot cooked rice.
Want More Ideas?
Cumin Roasted Potatoes
Toast 1 ½ teaspoons cumin seeds in small heavy skillet until fragrant, about 1 minute. Place in large roasting pan with 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add 2 pounds of russet potatoes, peeled and cut into one-inch cubes. Toss to coat. Bake in preheated 450 degrees F. oven for 35-40 minutes or until potatoes are tender and crisp around edges. Serve hot.
Will You Cook with Cumin?
© 2016 Linda Lum