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The Spice is Right: Cumin & chickpeas for one

April 14, 2006

White cumin

I have many, many spices in my kitchen. They are in small clear topped jars, fixed by magnets to my backsplash, colorful in their reds, greens, browns, and black. They are different, every one, and each a taste, I am finding, marked with millenia of history. I have been reading Jack Turner's erudite and entertaining Spice: The History of a Temptation. He wanted to tell the story of spices - not just the search for their routes and sources and the politics of trading and empire that sprang up around the status of spice - but how, instead, spices have changed the world around them. How has the appeal of certain spices been so powerful as to set ships sailing? It is a fascinating read, and the story of spice is far more complex than you might think.

But the thing that strikes me, reading this book, is that the spices I look at when I cook, hanging colorful on my wall, they form a bright thread from my stovetop to the cooking fire of someone else, real people, thousands of years ago. The spices in my cupboard today have changed very little from the ones that Ovid, Cleopatra, and the Roman emperors ate. A set of common tastes runs from their palates to mine.

And while certain spices like pepper and cinnamon were perhaps the most sought after, and clearly representative of this unbroken chain of tongues, dishes and tables, cumin, to me, is itself the warm, earthy taste of the past.

Cumin has a long history in both the Western and Eastern worlds. Turner's book deals more with the classical, Western side of history, touching on the East primarily through its dealings with the West - which is rather one-sided; I would love to read a historical or anthropological study of the use of spices in India and the Far East. But I still learned many things about this spice, so widespread throughout the world that almost any given cuisine can be seen as its home.

White cumin

Wealthy Greeks ate cumin long before the coming of Christ, as evidenced by its mention in plays of the period. The Romans used it in rich sauces of various types and purposes. When excavations were done at Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon, commander and hero of the Trojan War, tablets were found that listed cumin in its curiously unchanged spelling of kumino. This word is Semitic in origin, and the spice was certainly known to the Hebrews. Isaiah spoke of planting dill and cumin, scattering them upon the ground. Jesus knew the spice well, as he roundly rebuked the religious authorities for tithing the very tiniest seeds and spices to God - doling their righteousness out to the precise length of requirement - yet neglecting the mercy and justice that gave their religion its heart, counting out mint and dill and cumin while ignoring faithfulness.

Much later, in the Middle Ages, the heads of executed criminals were preserved and put on grim deterrent display with the help of cumin, the more expensive embalming spices like cinnamon and cloves being reserved for worthier (and wealthier) subjects. Monks grew cumin themselves, dusting the seeds from the feathery, parsley-like plant - although such spices went in and out of favor with Church authorities. It was believed, as St. Bernard writes in concern, that spices "delight the palate but inflame the libido."

It's featured in Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines. It has many names - jeera, zeera, ziran. Like other spices there's a host of medicinal claims attached to its use: it's been a diuretic, and a stimulant to the appetite and lactation. Some think it relieves the hiccups. It's still used in veterinary medicine.

But the thing, for me, that I love most about cumin is its warmth. It has this toasty, slightly bitter aroma that fills your mouth with warmth and the taste of something that has been sitting out in the sun all day. It feels like all those years of use and familiarity have bred into modern white cumin a fullness of taste and history. Something so small and nearly unseen, passed over by stately history, can still create a strong thread of connection between my plate and that of people long, long gone.

Cumin with chickpeas and garlic

So, a rumination on spice, ancient, for Barbara's event, designed to get people blogging - this month anyway - around an ancient spice. I respect Barbara as a food writer and weblogger very much - not the least because she used to live just up the road from my parents, and writes about local Ohio food and markets in such a way as to make me rather homesick. I also was amused by the fact that we could define an ancient spice however we liked, whether that be mummified with Egyptian pharoahs, or simply a jar of mustard we've had since Easter 1999. I went the obvious route, and the dish I made is designed to show off cumin in all its warm, toasty, earthy glory.

Chickpeas themselves are rather old, a basic human food for many, many years. You take some cumin, heat it with oil, then add crushed pepper and garlic, fry it until it's fragrant and heady. Then add sundried tomatoes and their oil with all their own baggage of late summer and sun, and cook with the chickpeas. Lemon juice and cucumber and parsley round it out.

The textures are wonderfully varied - the soft, toothsome chickpeas, the cool cucumber, the chewy tomatoes. And above all, the toasted cumin, somewhere between a spice and a tiny nut, crunching between your teeth. The flavors here are so primal that nearly any Old World culture could lay claim to them - the garlic, olive oil, fresh green parsley. And the cumin, which nearly every one has.

Chickpeas with Cumin & Garlic

2 15.5 -ounce cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas), rinsed, drained
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped (about 1 1/3 cups)
0.5 cup chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
0.25 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
dried crushed red pepper, to taste
5 garlic cloves, minced
0.33 cup thinly sliced drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
0.25 cup fresh lemon juice

1. Rinse and drain chickpeas thoroughly.
2. Chop cucumber and put in largish bowl. Set aside.
3. Chop parsley and put in a separate bowl.
4. Chop and mash garlic. Chop tomatoes.
5. Prepare lemon juice and set aside.
5. Heat oil in a heavy pan - cast iron is nice. Add cumin seeds and crushed red pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the seeds are toasted and the pepper is smoking. Hold your head over the pan and inhale deeply. (Just kidding!)
6. Add garlic and cook until golden.
7. Add tomatoes and cook until soft.
8. Add drained chickpeas and cook, stirring, until they take on just a bit of color and have started to absorb the garlic and tomato flavors.
9. Add lemon juice and stir. Simmer until a little reduced.
10. Add parsley and stir until slightly wilted.
11. Take pan off heat and let cool slightly.
12. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add pan's contents to bowl with the chopped cucumber. Stir.
13. Refrigerate. This is best after it's had a chance to sit overnight in the fridge, letting its spices and juices soak together into more than the sum of its parts. Serve slightly warm or room temperature. Really good at any temperature, actually.

Posted by Faith at 14 April 2006

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Comments

Great spice.
Great photos.

I must find a copy of that book.

j

Posted by: jasmine at April 19, 2006 10:22 PM

What a wonderful post. And I'll look for the Turner - we're always looking for books like that. (Have you read Kurlansky's "Salt"?)

The note in your recipe to "Hold your head over the pan and inhale deeply." is brilliant.

-Elizabeth

P.S. I love that we used the same quote from Isaiah to verify that our spices (mine was nigella seed) qualified as ancient... the vaguaries of translation.

Posted by: ejm at April 22, 2006 12:05 AM

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