Cumin, a native of Egypt, has been cultivated for millennia in India. It is a key ingredient of the Indian Spice box, sought after for its stellar performance both as food and as medicine. Called jira in both Sanskrit and Hindi, its name means “that which helps in digestion”. These oblong, ridged little seeds, which are actually a fruit, with an aroma prized in many world cuisines, belong to the Umbilleferae family, making them a relative of parsley, caraway and carrot amongst others.
Used to mummify pharaohs in ancient Egypt, this super food has a super nutritional profile, being a very good source of iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamins A, B, C, E and K in addition to zinc, potassium, phosphorus and other nutraceuticals such as cuminaldehyde and thymol.
Iron plays a vital role in many bodily functions and is an integral component of haemoglobin which ensures that oxygen from the lungs reaches all body cells. Therefore, cumin contributes to good health thanks to its iron content; this also helps fight anaemia in young girls while aiding lactation in breast-feeding mothers.
The cuminaldehide, which is an aromatic organic compound present in the essential oil of cumin, activates salivary glands, thus facilitating the first step of digestion which starts in the mouth.
The thymol, on the other hand, stimulates the glands responsible for the secretion of acids, bile and enzymes which support complete digestion in the stomach and intestines. A good digestion, in turn, promotes proper nutrient assimilation and inhibits gas formation, which causes stomach bloating. So, if you are aiming for a flat stomach, go for the ayurvedic decoction obtained from boiling 2 tablespoons of jira seeds in a litre of water.
The essential oil in cumin also has an anti-congestive effect, loosening the mucus, thus helping its evacuation. So, jira tea comes in handy to cure colds and coughs. Having it as a nightcap will also induce good sleep as cumin has the unique ability to be both a stimulant and a relaxant: it stimulates proper bodily functions which then relax the body.
Cumin is deemed to be a good antioxidant and detoxifies the liver. These properties make it an effective anti-carcinogenic ingredient. Ongoing research shows that cumin could be beneficial in reducing chances of hypoglycemia in some diabetics. This apart, the vitamin K it contains regulates blood coagulation. And according to Ayurveda, it is cooling in nature, which explains its use in various summer drinks.
If as a medicine, cumin is the 10th most used plant, on the cosmetic front, too, it does not disappoint. The vitamin E it contains promotes good skin whereas its detoxifying property eliminates toxins, which manifest as boils and pimples. Its anti-oxidative action, while being therapeutic, is also anti-aging: one is almost tempted to say, “Vanity, thy name is cumin!”
Given these multiple benefits, it seems like a good idea to make prolific use of jira also called zeera . The seeds are often used whole, as a tempering or seasoning agent across the length and breadth of India. As a chhonk, they impart a lovely flavour to various daals ; zeera alu has almost acquired the status of a signature national dish, especially accompanied with tandoori roti and daal fry.
Zeera pulao is no less appetising for being so simple to make. Should you want to enhance the flavour of this spice, dry roast the seeds in a skillet or tawa and grind them. You can then use the powder to add a special note to raitas , fruit chaats , aam panna or even nimbu paani. Make sure, however, not to buy large amounts of the powder as it will lose its aroma if kept for too long; in fact, it is better to buy whole seeds and powder them when required.
You can find breads, cheese and biscuits flavoured with cumin; your soups will be the tastier for a dash of cumin seeds in them, as will a savoury fruit salad of avocadoes, pears and apples.
As with many spices, cumin too needs to be stored in a tightly-sealed jar and kept in a cool, dark place. In India, we have two varieties of jira: theyellow - brownoneandtheblackone ( shajira) as it has a more intense flavour; so keep that in mind while buying. If you want the best results when using jira , both as a spice and as a medicine, remember to buy the organically grown one, since a cocktail of chemicals coming from conventional agriculture will only counteract the goodness of all ingredients used.
Add some North African or Mediterranean touches to your vegetables or taboulehs: heat some olive oil, add garlic, cumin, paprika and coriander powder; stir for about 20-30 seconds and add diced carrots, some water, lemon juice and salt; simmer till tender. For a flavourful tabouleh, make this lemon/cumin vinaigrette by whisking together 1 clove of minced garlic, 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of honey, freshly ground pepper and of course 1 teaspoon of roasted cumin as well as 1/2 a cup of extra virgin olive oil.