When one thinks of an ordinary dinner plate, it is likely that the first thought is not of cumin seed. However, this common spice is part and parcel of countless dishes all over the world. In order to bring cumin seeds from the field to your dinner plate, a complex journey must be taken. From the time that cumin seed first takes root to the process of seed grinding and seasoning, a great deal of human labor and sensitive care must be carried out to properly prepare it for human consumption.
What is Cumin?
Before exploring the fascinating journey behind cumin seed production and consumption, it is important to discuss what cumin actually is. In general, cumin is an aromatic, annual herb of the Apiaceae family. It is believed to originally come from Iraq and Iran, but is now cultivated in many countries across the world such as India, Turkey, Syria, and China. The plant itself can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and soil types, making it both a versatile and hardy plant species.
Cumin seed, on the other hand, is the dried, dark yellow-brown seed of the cumin herb. Named cuminum cyminum in Latin, cumin seed has a fragrant, earthy, and slightly spicy taste. It is highly valued around the world as a defining flavor in curry powder, garam masala, baharat, and a very wide range of other recipes. Moreover, cumin seed is rich in essential oils, proteins, and vitamins such as thiamine and niacin, and is widely considered to possess medicinal value.
Cumin is considered to be a hardy crop that requires relatively little maintenance or fertilizer for success in a field. It thrives in tropical highland climates where the temperature ranges from 70 to 85°F (21 to 30°C) and with the availability of some irrigation. Planting usually takes place in the springtime when temperatures are high enough, taking one to two months to reach maturity.
The cumin harvest is usually timed to take place when the plants are naturally drying out but still in the vegetative state. Once harvested, the cumin is dried for several days until it is moisture-free and ready for the next stages of cumin seed production.
Roasting and Cleaning
Once the cumin seed is dried, it is time to roast and clean the seed in preparation for human consumption. Generally speaking, both of these processes are intricately intertwined, though they can be completed separately. Roasting is done in two stages: first a light roast and then a finishing roast. The light roast usually takes place in a pan or wok set over a hot open flame, allowing the seed to toast lightly. Once the seed is brought to a certain temperature, it is placed in a hot oven to complete the finishing roast of the cumin seed. This will give the cumin seed a deep roasted color, a more pungent smell, and a more pronounced flavor.
The cleaning process is completed separately. It is mostly done by hand and includes removing any impurities such as stones, dust, and chaff that may have come in contact with the cumin in the field or during the roasting process. Generally, the cleaning is done with sieves of different sizes, ensuring that only the purest and highest quality of the cumin seed makes its way through to the final product.
Grinding and Blending
After the cleaning process, the cumin seed is ready for any additional processing necessary for human consumption. This can include anything from grinding and blending to spice mixtures or freeze-drying. In some cases, the cumin seed can be grinded into a powder and then used as an ingredient. In other cases, it is mixed with other spices or herbs to create a flavorful blend.
The grinding process for cumin seed is relatively simple. It usually takes place in a stone or electric grinder to effectively break down the seed into small, fine particles. The resulting spice should have a consistent texture and heat level throughout, free of any large chunks of cumin. This is why it is important to ensure that the grinding process is done properly, as the final product should be uniform and of the highest quality.
Packaging and Labeling
Once the cumin seed is ground and/or blended, the final step is to package and label it for market. This process will vary depending on the merchant and their preferences, but the most common type of packaging includes glass jars, plastic bags, foil wrappers, and some combination of them. The labeling process is particularly important, as it provides customers with important information such as the ingredients contained within and the expiration date of the product.
Finally, after the packaging is completed and labeled, the cumin seed is ready for sale at local and international markets. From grocery stores and spice retailers to mom-and-pop shops, cumin seed can now be found in any location where a person might be in search of a flavorful addition to their dinner plate.
On Your Dinner Plate
All of the work and effort necessary to bring cumin seed from field to dinner plate are well worth the effort, as this ingredient is a key component to countless iconic recipes. From curries and jambalaya to tacos and hummus, just a small addition of cumin seed can completely transform the flavor of a dish. Not only is it delicious, but it is also nutritious with its richness in essential oils, proteins, and vitamins.
The journey of cumin seed is a long and fascinating one, and with just a bit of knowledge, one can better appreciate its unique flavor and history. It is important to note that the way in which cumin is produced and consumed is highly subjective and varies greatly depending on which country or culture someone might be in. No matter the way cumin is prepared, one thing remains true: its vitality in the kitchen cannot be underestimated.