Cumin, cuminum cyminum - a member of the fecund umbelliferae family - is a small, light brown seed which at first sight resembles caraway. Its taste, however, is quite different. Like many of the world's greatest foods - such as well-aged cheese, edible fungi and certain wines - cumin has an intimate, almost animal scent described by Madhur Jaffrey as a "most tantalising odour".
Cumin's attractive aroma, plus its use as a digestive, helps account for its long-established cultivation in the Nile Valley for more than 2,000 years. In ancient Rome, it was so popular that it was used in place of pepper, and it was even made into a paste for spreading on bread.
Today, cumin survives as a vital flavouring for meat and vegetables in the luxuriantly fragrant cooking of the Middle East. It is also the defining flavour of the couscous dishes of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. It arrived in the New World with the Spaniards, and hence appears in Mexican cooking. By its Indian name of zeera, it has long been a constituent of garam masala and other curry spice blends.
The importance of cumin can be judged by its recurring presence in the endless permut-ations of flavours of Indian cooking. The pleasant, woody notes of cumin offset any sharp or acid flavours in vegetable cooking. The spice - either alone or combined with coriander or chillies and crushed garlic - can transform the familiar flavours of staples like potatoes, lentils, and members of the brassica family such as cauliflower.
Black cumin, shah zeera, is a rarer, more expensive and more subtly flavoured spice than the usual brown variety; and unless bought from a reputable spice merchant, seeds labelled as black cumin are likely, I'm afraid, to be nigella.
To preserve its unique flavour, buy cumin seed whole. Dry-roast the seeds for a few minutes in a cast-iron pan before using, to release the wonderful aroma. Add the seeds to a recipe, or grind them to a powder - making sure all the spiky husks have been pulverised - in a mortar or electric coffee mill. Freshly roasted seeds go well sprinkled over buttery, toasted almonds or cashew nuts, or stirred into a hot dish of creamy, pured roots such as carrots, swedes and celeriac.
For a superb taste of the Maghreb, blend ground cumin with crushed garlic, a little salt and some finely chopped parsley and coriander leaves. Rub the mixture into boned lamb (in one piece, or cubed and arranged on skewers) and leave in a cold place for 3-4 hours, then grill until cooked and serve with bread or rice and a salad.
Lunching with a friend the other week, I was pleased to detect the aroma of cumin rising from the lentil soup. The agreeable and satisfying flavour of this ingredient, so evocative of the perfumed spice markets of the Mediterra-nean, is perfect for dispelling winter gloom.
This delicious apricot, lentil and cumin soup comes from The Cranks Recipe Book (Dent £l2.95). It makes an admirable light meal served with warm wholemeal scones or bread.
2oz/50g red lentils, washed
2oz/50g dried cooking apricots
1 large potato, peeled and roughly chopped
almost 2 pints/1.2 litres vegetable stock
juice of 12 lemon
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. Cool slightly then pure in a blender or processor until smooth. Reheat the soup and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve plain, or with a spoonful of plain yoghurt in each bowl, and sprinkled with a few freshly roasted cumin seeds.