Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Front Burner | FORKLORE

Our Cumin Heritage

July 19, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

When we think of cumin, it's the cuisines of India, Morocco and, above all, Mexico that come to mind. In ancient times, though, the big cumin lovers were the Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks kept a special cumin box (a kyminodokon or kyminotheke) on the table, like a salt cellar, so they could cumin their food to taste. They used cumin so abundantly that a skinflint was a kyminopristes, i.e. someone who would split up a cumin seed. (If you wanted to be still more insulting, you could call a stingy person a kyminopristokardamoglyphos, or cumin-splitting-cress-leaf-scraper.)

The Romans threw cumin around freely, even into sweet dishes like patina de piris, a sort of pear frittata. They had a sauce for shellfish called cuminatum which still sounds pretty good: honey, vinegar, fish sauce, parsley, mint, pepper and "plenty of cumin" (plusculum cuminum), as the recipes put it.

But a funny thing happened in the Middle Ages: Europeans (outside Spain, which was ruled by cumin-loving Moors) lost their taste for the spice. Sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves were all the rage.

The one medieval European dish that did star cumin was cominee, which was chicken in a sauce consisting of the white wine it was stewed in thickened with cornstarch or egg yolks and flavored with cumin. It can be surprisingly elegant.

But outside of some Dutch and Swiss cheeses and some French and German breads, cumin is scarcely used anymore in Europe. It has even largely fallen out of favor in Spain--but not, fortunately, before the conquistadors introduced it to Mexico.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|