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Cumin, whose botanical name is Cuminum cyminum, is a herbaceous plant native to the Nile valley, which subsequently spread to the whole Mediterranean basin. It has long been cultivated in temperate areas of Europe, India and China. After reaching Spain from northern Africa, it was exported to America, where it is now widely used. This spice belongs to the culinary tradition of many countries, from India to the Middle East, from North Africa to South America. Its rich, penetrating aroma is appreciated all over the world.

Cumin is an annual plant belonging to the Umbelliferae family, like fennel, parsley and chervil. The plant has a branched stem with plenty of small branches, and grows to a height of 30 cm. The flowers are white or pink, and borne in umbels. Cumin seeds, similar to anise and fennel seeds, are slightly fuzzy, brown in colour and 5-6 mm long, with longitudinal ridges. Black cumin, which is less common and usually grown in the valleys of Kashmir and Iran, has smaller and sweeter seeds, with a taste that reminds of black truffle, and is widely used in Iranian cuisine.

Many people believe that the word "cumin" derives from a city in today's Iran, Kerman. Legend has it that this small town was the largest producer of this plant in Persia. There is also a curios idiom, confirming how cumin was widely cultivated in the area: "bringing cumin to Kerman", meaning an action that turns out to be completely useless in relation to the aimed purpose. In medieval times, cumin had several symbolic meanings attached to it: it was thought to bring good luck to newly-weds, who used to wear a few seeds on them during their wedding for good luck.

Il particolare profumo e l’aroma forte e caldo del cumino sono dovuti al suo contenuto di oli essenziali. Il costituente principale del cumino è la cuminaldeide che contribuisce anche a determinarne l’aroma. I semi di cumino contengono anche acidi grassi, proteine, glucidi, tannini e cellulosa e sono inoltre particolarmente ricchi di ferro. Il cumino è anche tradizionalmente considerato utile per il sistema digestivo e la ricerca scientifica sta cominciando a riscoprire la sua antica reputazione in tal senso. Inoltre, il cumino sembra avere un effetto sedativo sulla tosse. Per uso esterno l’olio essenziale di cumino è largamente utilizzato per la profumazione di cosmetici.