Cumin seeds grow on a small annual herb of the parsley family called cuminum cyminum. Cumin seeds are yellowish brown in color and are similar to caraway seeds but a little longer. They have a strong, slightly bitter aromatic flavor. The plants are threshed when the fruit is ripe and the 'seeds' dried. The strong aromatic smell and warm taste of Cumin fruits are due to the presence of a volatile oil. The aroma of the cumin seeds, like most spices, emerges best when dry roasted or added to hot oil.
Cumin is a popular spice in Latin America, North Africa and most of Asia. Main producing countries today are India, Iran, Indonesia, China and the South Mediterranean. Cumin is one of the most typical spices of India. The fruits are used whole, and are often fried or dry-roasted before usage. In South India, cumin is an important ingredient in several spice mixtures. Similar spice mixtures are also much in use among the descendants of South Indian immigrants in Malaysia or Singapore. Cumin is also very popular in Western to Central Asia; spice mixtures from this region featuring cumin are Yemeni zhoug, Saudi-Arabian baharat and North African tagines. In Central and South American cooking also cumin is an important spice. In South Eastern and Eastern Asia, cumin is less valued but used occasionally.
Cumin is believed to be a native of Egypt and Eastern Mediterranean region, where it is cultivated since Biblical times. Cumin is mentioned in the works of Hippocrates and Dioscorides. According to Pliny the ancients took ground cumin seeds medicinally with bread, water or wine. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was much in use as a culinary spice in the west. Although it was a common spice in the times of the Roman Empire, today, cumin usage in Europe is restricted to flavouring cheese in the Netherlands and in France. In Italian cuisine cumin has little use. However, it is referred as Roman caraway in many European languuages.