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How to extract maximum flavour from cumin

If Indian cooking had a capsule wardrobe, jeera as a spice would be one of the ‘top 10 items’

Cumin pepper rasam (left), and cumin yogurt dressing. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)
Cumin pepper rasam (left), and cumin yogurt dressing. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)

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Cumin, or jeera, water is something most Indians swear by for its healing properties. I remember the lady who would come home to massage my infant son scolding me every day for not feeding him jeera water for his general wellness. (I belonged to the “only breast milk for the first six months, no other remedies needed” camp.)

If there was a capsule wardrobe for Indian cuisine, jeera as a spice would feature in the “top 10 items”. Jeera rice, jeera aloo, dal with jeera tadka, jeera rasam: talk about a spice that pairs with all the basics in your pantry. It is a spice that can be easily befriended by someone who is new to Indian cooking.

There are three ways to use cumin seeds in Indian cooking. Whole cumin seeds are added to oil or ghee as tadka (tempering) at the start of a dish or as the final tadka over a dal or rasam. Powdered cumin is used along with other ground spices like coriander, red chillies and turmeric to form the backbone of curries. And then there is the ninja-level roasted cumin powder. Roasting any spice wakes it up from hibernation, releasing its volatile oils and, therefore, aromas. Cumin seeds, when roasted over a low flame until smoking and dark brown (not burnt), take on a whole new avatar. No longer the shy, wallflower kind happy to join a mélange of spices. Very little can stand up to the bold, complex flavour of roasted cumin.  

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Sprinkling a generous pinch over raita or dahi vada is an essential part of these dishes, giving a multifold boost in flavour. It is also an integral part of chaat masala. Preferably, make both the cumin and roasted cumin powder at home as these are way more potent than the store-bought ones.

A close cousin of jeera, called shahjeera (black cumin seeds), is smaller and flatter. Both these spices differ quite a bit in their aroma and taste.

Caraway seeds are used more in European cuisine, such as in rye breads, goulash and casseroles. I suppose the milder, fennel-like flavour of caraway is more agreeable to European palates while Indians prefer the stronger-tasting cumin.

The McCormick website describes the taste of cumin as rich, hearty, earthy and warm, with a touch of citrus. This pairs well with the earthiness and sweetness of root vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes, hearty ingredients like lentils and beans. In south Indian cooking, black pepper and curry leaves are the soulmates to cumin seeds, as you will experience in the cumin pepper rasam recipe below.

Cumin Pepper Rasam
Serves 2-4
A comforting broth that is had hot with steamed rice or as is.

1 tbsp tamarind flakes (packed)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ghee
1 tbsp tur dal (dry)
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp rasam powder
10-12 curry leaves, torn into small bits
Half tsp crushed jaggery (optional)

For the tempering
1 tsp ghee
Half tsp mustard seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
5-6 curry leaves

Soak the tamarind flakes in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Squeeze out the extract from the tamarind flakes into the water and discard any remaining fibrous parts. Transfer the tamarind water to a saucepan along with the salt and curry leaves. Let this come to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer for three-four minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, heat 1 tsp ghee. Fry tur dal on a low flame until it turns a shade darker. Add the peppercorns and fry for another 10-20 seconds. Turn off the flame and add the cumin seeds. Stir to combine with the other ingredients. Let it cool. Transfer to a mixer jar and grind to a coarse paste using around half a cup of water. Add this paste to the simmering tamarind water. Simmer for four-five minutes.

Make a slurry of the rasam powder in 2 tbsp of water and add it to the tamarind broth, cooking for two-three minutes until the flavours of the rasam powder are well infused into the broth. Dilute the rasam with a cup or more of water depending on how thick it is. Add the jaggery if using.

Rasam should always be cooked on a low flame and on a gentle simmer, never a rolling boil. Once the final mixture rises in the pan and turns foamy, turn off the flame.

Heat the ghee in a small pan. Fry the mustard seeds until it pops and then add cumin seeds and curry leaves.Transfer the tempering over the rasam.

Enjoy hot rasam as a soup or with steamed rice and a roasted papad as an accompaniment for a simple, easy to digest, restorative meal.

Cumin Yogurt Dressing
Makes half a cup
Goes well on a roasted root vegetable salad or a simple green salad.

1 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Quarter cup thick yogurt
Half tsp salt

Lightly roast the cumin seeds on a low flame for a minute. Crush in a mortar pestle once cool. Add the garlic cloves to the mortar and crush them along with the cumin. Transfer this to a small bowl along with the rest of the ingredients. Whisk well until thick and creamy.

Alternatively, transfer the ground cumin to a small mixer jar along with all the other ingredients and pulse a few times until the dressing comes together.

Store in the refrigerator in an airtight bottle and use within three-four days.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life. @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram. 

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