It is a herbaceous annual plant, with a slender branched stem 20-30 cm tall. The leaves are 5-10 cm long, pinnate or bipinnate, thread-like leaflets. The flowers are small, white or pink, and borne in umbels. The fruit is a laterall fusiform or ovoid achene 4-5 mm long, containing a single seed. Cumin seeds are similar to fennel seeds, but are smaller and darker in colour.
Cultivation and uses
Cumin's distinctive flavour and strong, warm aroma is due to its essential oil content. Its main constituent and important aroma compound is cuminaldehyde (4-isopropylbenzaldehyde). Important aroma compounds of toasted cumin are the substituted pyrazines, 2-ethoxy-3-isopropylpyrazine, 2-methoxy-3-sec-butylpyrazine, and 2-methoxy-3-methylpyrazine.
Today, cumin is identified with Indian and Mexican cuisine. It is used as an ingredient of curry powder. Cumin can be found in some Dutch cheeses like Leyden cheese, and in some traditional breads from France. In herbal medicine, cumin is classified as stimulant, carminative, and antimicrobial.
Cumin can be used to season many dishes, as it draws out their natural sweetnesses. It is traditionally added to curries, enchiladas, tacos, and other Middle-eastern, Indian, Cuban and Mexican-style foods. It can also be added to salsa to give it extra flavour. Cumin has also been used on meat in addition to other common seasonings. The spice is a familiar taste in Tex-Mex dishes and is extensively used in the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. Cumin was also used heavily in ancient Roman cuisine.
Cultivation of cumin requires a long, hot summer of 3-4 months, with daytime temperatures around 30°C (86°F); it is drought tolerant, and is mostly grown in mediterranean climates. It is grown from seed sown in spring, and needs a fertile, well-drained soil.
Cumin can be boiled in tea to make "cumin cider", first made by native Mexicans and spread throughout South America.
Cumin is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. The cumin plant grows to 30-50 cm (1-2 ft) tall and is harvested by hand. Cumin is a key component in both chili powder and curry powder.
The flavour of cumin plays a major role in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisines. Cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, and is found in achiote blends, adobos, garam masala, curry powder, and bahaarat.
Historically, Iran has been the principal supplier of cumin, but currently the major sources are India, Sri Lanka, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Superstition during the Middle Ages cited that cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering. It was also believed that a happy life awaited the bride and groom who carried cumin seed throughout the wedding ceremony. Cumin is also said to help in treatment of the common cold, when added to hot milk and consumed.
Cumin has been in use since ancient times. Seeds, excavated at the Syrian site Tell ed-Der, have been dated to the second millennium BC. They have also been reported from several New Kingdom levels of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
Originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region, cumin is mentioned in the Bible in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:27) and the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). It was also known in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin fell out of favour in Europe except in Spain and Malta during the Middle Ages. It was introduced to the Americas by Spanish colonists.
The English form is derived from the Latin cuminum and Greek κύμινον. The Greek term itself seems to have been borrowed from a Semitic source; forms of this word are attested in several ancient Semitic languages, including Akkadian. The ultimate source seems to be the Sumerian word gamun .
A folk etymology connects the word with the Persian city Kerman, where, the story goes, most of ancient Persia's cumin was produced. For the Persians the expression "carrying cumin to Kerman" has the same meaning as the English language phrase "carrying coals to Newcastle". Kerman, locally called Kermun, would have became Kumun and then cumin in the European languages.
In India and Pakistan, cumin is known as jeera or jira; in Iran and Central Asia, cumin is known as zira; in northwestern mainland China, cumin is known as ziran. In Arabic, it is known as kamuwn, (الكمــــــــون).
Confusion with other spices
Cumin is hotter to the taste, lighter in colour, and larger than caraway (Carum carvi), another umbelliferous spice that is sometimes confused with it. Many European languages do not distinquish clearly between the two. For example, in Czech caraway is called 'kmín' while cumin is called 'římský kmín' or "Roman caraway." Some older cookbooks erroneously name ground coriander as the same spice as ground cumin. 
Dry, whole cumin fruit (or seed)
Whole cumin seeds and ground cumin
- Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Domestication of plants in the Old World, third edition (Oxford: University Press, 2000), p. 206