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The politics of the spice rack: cumin

4 30 0
23.05.2020

Cumin has a unique distinction: it is the only English word whose ancestry can be traced back to Sumerian, the first written language.

The word’s ancestry reflects the plant’s ubiquity in the world’s kitchens. The seeds thrive almost everywhere, and can be eaten raw, or used to give flavour to everything from starters to desserts to drinks. So although they almost certainly originate in the Middle East, they play a central role in the cuisine of almost every country and region.

Small wonder that when I catalogued my spices, cumin outnumbered everything else. I go through a jar of the powdered stuff about every fortnight and probably get through the seeds at a similar rate.

It’s not just that it forms the bedrock of so many different recipes and cuisines, or its versatility that makes it so useful, though it certainly helps: because I don’t control what comes in my vegetable box, I will occasionally end up with a vegetable that doesn’t really go with anything else, but I’ve since learnt that a vegetable, lightly dusted with cumin and olive oil, can then either be grilled or roasted and will accompany pretty much any cuisine perfectly naturally.

Its powerful and subtle flavour means that it is strong, but not overpoweringly so: ideal, to be frank, if something has gone wrong earlier in the process. Two weeks ago, I had reason to be thankful for the restorative properties of cumin: I had planned to make a mushroom risotto, and had chopped, sliced and begun to gently fry the vegetables accordingly. I had all of the ingredients, except one: I didn’t have any risotto rice. Although better cooks than me say that you can make risotto perfectly well without arborio rice, I have never managed it: I always end up with something with a deeply unsatisfying texture. What I did have, fortunately, were the makings of an emergency mushroom biryani - and while the cumin was not an essential component, it helped to........

© New Statesman