Spice Route

Spice Route

Cumin seeds, which come from the Cuminum cyminum plant, are rather small, unassuming and unpretentious oblong-shaped marvels. They have a peppery yet nutty flavour which plays a huge role in a variety of world cuisines and is a key component in a number of well-known dishes, and a much-loved ingredient in Mellissa Bushby’s kitchen. She tells us why.

Cumin is available in ground and whole form, and in my home especially, is used to flavour soup, chilli, curry, and spice mixes, such as rubs. It also gives life to rice and potatoes without too much effort, which is often an added bonus in a rather pressed and often hectic lifestyle. Add a pinch here or a teaspoon there whenever you cook a hearty curry or stew. It lends itself especially well to Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian, Asian and Mediterranean food; it is very forgiving and is at home in most dishes.

The seeds are ridged lengthways and have a yellowish-brown tinge to them, similar to caraway and dill. The spicy flavour of ground cumin, which incorporates a bitter undertone and strong aroma, with hints of citrus, is a versatile and valued flavoursome ingredient in many a dish, but it also has numerous health benefits – for the body, hair and skin. Cumin is an excellent source of iron, which, as an essential part of haemoglobin, helps to transport oxygen from the lungs to the cells. Iron also helps to keep the metabolism functioning at its peak and keeps the immune system healthy. Children and teenagers also need an increased intake of iron, as do pregnant and lactating women.

I often find myself making use of the age-old remedies; after all, how many of the herbalists’ poultices have stood the test of time? Many folk remedies are still in use today or form the basis of more commercial products, and when they say cumin has been used as a digestive aid for centuries, then who am I to argue? In fact, cumin is mentioned in the Bible as a soup and bread seasoning, and was also used as a form of currency. Cumin is native to Egypt and was used to mummify pharaohs in ancient times.

But back to digestive aids. Ongoing scientific research shows that cumin does indeed encourage the emission of pancreatic enzymes, which in turn promote good digestion and a healthy absorption of nutrients.
This spice was recognised as a symbol of love and fidelity during the Middle Ages, and wives often presented cumin loaves to husbands who went off on long journeys or to war. This is a continuation of the ancient Arabic theme, whereby a paste made from cumin, honey and pepper, believed to have aphrodisiac properties, was presented to couples on their wedding night.

On the beauty front, cumin’s high vitamin E content helps to keep your skin healthy. Vitamin E is both a nutrient and an antioxidant, and triggers the anti-ageing process by combating free radicals, keeping the skin smooth and healthy into old age.

The essential oils also help to protect the skin from bacterial and fungal infections. A topical application of cumin paste facilitates quick healing of skin disorders such as pimples, boils, eczema and psoriasis.

Cumin is also very good for long and lustrous tresses.

Boil up two tablespoons of black cumin seeds and one cup of water. Leave to cool and strain. Add three tablespoons of olive oil to the seeds, and mix well.

Massage into the scalp and leave for one hour, then wash with a natural, sulphate-free shampoo.

Rinse well, and repeat every second week. This can also be used to combat dandruff, and as a treatment for thinning hair, baldness or hair loss.

How to prepare and store cuminCumin must be stored in a sealed glass jar, in a cool dark place such as a cupboard. Ground cumin will last for up to six months and whole seeds approximately a year.

When cooking with these seeds, lightly roast them in a hot, dry pan before adding to your recipe, it releases the flavour and aroma.

An excellent way of using cumin is to add whole roasted seeds, chopped dried Turkish apricots, and almonds to wild brown rice.

It exudes pizzazz and a hint of the exotic, is delicious and it brings a little bit of North Africa into your home and onto the dinner table.

Black bean-and-corn chilli

• 2 tbs canola or sunflower oil
• 1 large onion, diced
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 to 2 chillies, finely chopped (to taste)
• 1 red pepper, diced
• 1 tbs ground cumin
• 1 tsp ground coriander
• 1 tsp paprika
• 1 tbs dried oreganum
• 2x 400g tin crushed tomato
• 2x 400g tin black beans, rinsed
• 1x 410g tin whole corn
• A good handful fresh parsley, chopped
• A good handful fresh coriander, chopped.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion, garlic, chilli and pepper.

Fry until the onion is softened and translucent. Add the spices and dried herbs and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the beans, corn, parsley and half the coriander and leave to simmer for a further 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve with cornbread, rice or a crusty home-made loaf, scattering the remaining coriander over the top.

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