Cumin in Chinese Food
It was just the other night when we dined at Red Tiger Dumpling House in Stony Brook that I first encountered the use of cumin in Chinese food. We asked the waiter about it, and it just made me more curious to learn more about this fascinating spice called cumin.
It’s not just used in Indian food! Cumin is the dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. The cumin plant grows to 12–20 inches tall and is harvested by hand. Today, the plant is mostly grown in China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Mexico, Chile and India. Although the small cumin seed looks rather unassuming, its nutty peppery flavor packs a punch when it comes to adding a nutty and peppery flavor.
Cumin is used in cooking in Chinese cooking primarily in Mongolia and Xinjiang. In just about every northern Chinese city you’ll find Uighurs from Xinjiang who run restaurants and street stalls. (Not so much in central and southern China) One constant is yang rou chuar, thin pieces of mutton marinated with cumin and dried chili’s that are skewered and grilled. Another typical cumin dish is a large cut of lamb that is seasoned and roasted. Chunks of the meat are served with bread.
In a future article I will post a recipe for Mongolian stir-fried lamb with cumin.
Dishes using cumin probably developed as a result of trade along the Silk Route, since that’s where they are customarily found. The use of cumin in western China, therefore, could go back as far as 2000 years, or about 1500 year before the use of chili peppers in Szechuan and Hunan cuisine.
It is probably not just for taste alone that cumin has made it into the stellar ranks of various cuisines. This ordinary looking seed is anything but ordinary when it comes to health benefits:
Iron for Energy and Immune Function
Cumin seeds are an excellent source of iron, a mineral that plays many vital roles in the body. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. Additionally, iron is instrumental in keeping your immune system healthy. Iron is particularly important for menstruating women, who lose iron each month during menses. Additionally, growing children and adolescents have increased needs for iron, as do women who are pregnant or lactating.
Seeds of Good Digestion
Cumin seeds have traditionally been noted to be of benefit to the digestive system, and scientific research is beginning to bear out cumin’s age-old reputation. Research has shown that cumin may stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes, compounds necessary for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation.
Cumin seeds may also have anti-carcinogenic properties. In one study, cumin was shown to protect laboratory animals from developing stomach or liver tumors. This cancer-protective effect may be due to cumin’s potent free radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability it has shown to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. Yet, since free radical scavenging and detoxification are important considerations for the general maintenance of wellness, cumin’s contribution to wellness may be even more farther reaching.
So, spice up your life and add some cumin to your diet!
Humbly submitted for your consumption,
—Mee Magnum (“Chop! Chop!”)