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Spice Hunting: Cumin

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Lamb with Cumin and Chiles

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After black pepper, cumin is the most-used spice on Earth. A flower related to parsley originating around Egypt (spices have weird family trees), it's followed people around wherever they go. Cumin has an unmistakable flavor: it tastes earthy, musky, gamey, and spicy.

Cumin complements chiles beautifully, bringing additional heat to a dish while balancing their fruitiness. And for those who want great flavor but can't handle much spiciness, cumin offers much more flavor and aroma for its heat than many chiles. Its pungency is perfect for any gamey meat like goat, lamb, or venison. It elevates beans and rice pilaf to new heights. It's oddly delicious when used in place of caraway in borsch and split pea soup.

And it makes salsas sing, adding contrast and a pleasant crunch. Cumin is used so extensively it's hard to find dishes where it doesn't work well. Pick up a dirt-cheap bag from an ethnic grocery and you'll plow through it in no time.

Don't bother with ground cumin, whether home-ground or store-bought. Grinding intensifies spices' flavor but at the expense of their rounded depth. It's a useful technique to release flavor from large pods, like star anise, if you aren't going to stew them for hours. But whole cumin seeds are small enough to provide plenty of flavor, and if left whole their unique musk and bitterness come through all the more. Plus, whole spices are just easier to work with. When I'm feeling too lazy to pull out my spice grinder, cumin is my salvation.

When cooking with cumin seeds there are two critical choices: how to heat them (to excite their volatile oils) and when to add them to a dish. How you initially cook the spice affects how it flavors the end result.

To keep the flavor more confined to the seeds, toast them in a dry skillet till just fragrant (then remove them to a plate or bowl so they don't overcook). To infuse the entire dish with cumin goodness, fry them in hot oil until they make cracking sounds before adding additional ingredients. Either way, don't cook them longer than you have to, as small spices especially can burn easily. If you do burn them, toss them out and start again; there's no rescuing bitter cumin.

Cumin added at the start of a dish, common in a curry or rice pilaf, forms an earthy, spicy backdrop, but long cooking kills its subtleties. When just tossed in at the end, it works more like an herbal garnish. Try tossing some toasted seeds on roasted potatoes or vegetables with some coarse salt. Or drizzle some cumin-fried oil in a bowl of soup in lieu of olive or sesame oil. To really make cumin the star of a dish, start with some toasted or fried cumin and finish it with more of the same. These toasting, frying, and timing tricks can be used for a variety of spices.

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Crunchy cumin seeds and tender lamb from Xi'an Famous Foods. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I love cumin most paired with lamb—they build off each other's gamey intensity—and nothing does that better than a Muslim-influenced Chinese dish served in a bun or over noodles. If you've been to Xi'an Famous Foods, this is my loose approximation of the lamb they serve in their "lamb burgers" and on their noodles.

While cumin is usually used in balance with several other spices, here it's an all-out assault on the tongue, a celebration of the depth of flavor and forceful punch cumin lends to whatever it touches. This recipe illustrates cumin's amazing versatility: it intensifies the meat's gaminess, balances the chiles' fruity aroma, and contrasts the tender lamb with crunchy seeds. Given all this variety and flavor potential in a tiny seed, it's no wonder cumin is a culinary rock star around the world.

Lamb with Cumin and Chiles recipe »

What are your favorite uses for cumin?

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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