Cumin, you either love it or hate it. But, did you know that cumin is as old as recorded history? Indeed it is . For starters, cumin is the only word in the English language that can be directly traced to the Sumerian word gamun, found in cuneiform tablets dating back 4,000 years. A similar word, kamumu, is the Akkadian counterpart. The Akkadians were a Semitic group that populated the region thousands of years ago.
The popularity of cumin in the ancient world was brought to light through the discovery of the Yale Tablets, a set of 3 cuneiform clay tablets discovered in a drawer in the library at Yale, hence their name. These archaeological gems contain recipes for broths, meats, fowl and fish. The collection totals about 40 recipes, most of them containing cumin. The approximate date of the tablets is 1750 B.C.
The use of cumin was also popular in classical antiquity, for medicinal and culinary purposes alike. In a series of medical writings by Hippocrates(the father of Greek medicine) the virtues of cumin in treating women’s reproductive issues are discussed. This is a food blog, so I will spare you the details.
The Romans also employed cumin as medicine according to the historian Pliny. Its culinary importance at the Roman table was stressed by Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived around the 1st century. In his book he emphasized that cumin should be a pantry essential. It was actually the Romans who eventually brought cumin to the rest of Europe via their highly efficient trade machine. The noble houses of medieval England embraced the use of cumin. An accounts book from King Henry III’s household shows the purchase of cumin to be 20 lbs. at a time.
Cumin is as common as salt in the cuisines of India, the Caribbean, Mexico and North Africa. Dal (a lentil dish typical of India), Tagine and Cuban Black Beans would not be the same without this delicious spice. Apart from being a necessary seasoning to many ethnic dishes, cumin is also a key ingredient in chili powder and some curries. So, next time you sprinkle cumin in your chili, lentils, or stew, be aware that you are following in the footsteps of an ancient culinary tradition.