OK – so what is the difference between cumin and caraway? And how should I drink my Kümmel?
Bemoaning the fact that I was missing cumin to sprinkle over my humous the other evening (see humous with walnut oil and cumin) the Saucy Dressings’ chief taster commented, “well, we have caraway, use that. It’s the same thing isn’t it”. I told him I didn’t think it was. And he countered by asking what the difference was.
Hence this post.
I was pleased to discover that I was right. Cumin and caraway are very different. And they do taste very different. Nevertheless, the Saucy Dressings’ Chief Taster also had a point – they are similar enough, that, if you’re pushed, you can substitute one for the other.
If you find any references to either black cumin, or black caraway this is something totally different again – normally referred to as nigella.
You can get both cumin and caraway in powdered form, but it’s much better to dry-fry (go here for more on dry-frying) the seeds, and then crush roughly in a pestle and mortar… or even use whole if you are in a rush. Steenberg’s is a very good supplier – I’ve been around the warehouse and I can vouch for the quality of the produce – it’s absolutely excellent. See interview with Axel Steenberg.
Cumin’s name derives originally from the Greek, κύμινον (kyminon). Its botanical name is Cuminum cyminum and it’s a member of the parsley family. It’s widely used all over the world, but particularly in India (it’s a key curry ingredient) where it’s known as jeera. It’s an ancient seed used by Egyptians in their mummification process.
The seeds are straightish, a light grey-brown to khaki colour with nine fine ridges along the length. The cumin is on the right of the featured image above.
It has a distinctive smokey, earthy taste, slightly buttery, sometimes with a light bitter overlay, and (especially when you dry fry – it’s worth it just for the aroma) a pungent and warming smell.
Cumin aids digestion, soothes stomach spasms, relieves gas (!), and stimulates the appetite.
What to put it in and foods where it’s commonly found:
- Curries, kormas, masalas
- Spice mixes such as curry powder and garam masala
- Chilli dishes – such as chilli con carne
- Vegetable casseroles
- Cabbage – see creamy cumin cabbage
- Homemade hamburgers (Axel Steenberg’s suggestion) – and he’s not wrong – in fact, no self-respecting Turkish meatball would be without cumin – same sort of concept
- foul mudammas, aka Ful Medames (a sort of fava bean mush served with pitta bread)
- Add with paprika to a tomato salsa or a tomato sauce…
- It would also go well in a romesco sauce
- Because of its preserving properties it’s often added to pickles and sausages and charcuterie
- Niki Segnit recommends mixing cumin with lemon zest and olive oil to make a marinade for fish or lamb.
“Citral, a key compound in lemon flavour, is often used in cleaning fluids and furniture polish. The flavour of cumin is frequently compared to dirty socks. But don’t let that put you off.”
-Niki Segnit, The Flavour Thesaurus
Also, go to how to make Moroccan cumin salt.
The botanical name for caraway is Carum carvi and it comes from the same plant family as the carrot – Apiaceae. Whereas cumin is popular all over the world, caraway is a very European spice – most of the world’s production comes from Finland and The Netherlands.
Beware! Sometimes Indians will translate their jeera (cumin) as caraway – if it’s an Indian recipe it’s likely to be cumin you should be using.
The seeds are dark brown (darker than cumin), with five ridges along their length.
Like cumin it also has a warm, earthy taste, but there is also a hint of fennel, or anise – no wonder as both those plants are also Apiaceae. The bitter overlay in caraway is a bit stronger than in cumin and it’s sharper, less buttery.
Caraway also is said to aid digestion.
What to put it in, and foods where it’s commonly found:
- Cabbage (especially sauerkraut – or add to Nicer Than Sauerkraut Cabbage With Apple and Nutmeg)
- Rye bread (especially pumpernickel), or other baking
- Goose and duck
- Cheese such as Munster and Gouda – the sharpness of the caraway offsets the fatty richness of the cheese
- It goes well with pork and sausages
- According to Jonathan Meades in The Plagarist in the Kitchen, use caraway whole for “making potatoes in their jackets just about edible”.
- For more ideas and recipes go to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s article on caraway.
Kümmel is an aniseed and caraway infused liqueur, made from distilled grain or potato, which gets its name from the German for caraway, Kümmel. Sometimes caraway is also used.
It was purportedly developed by a Dutch distiller, Lucas Bols, in the sixteenth century. The story goes that Peter the Great went to The Netherlands incognito to work with Dutch engineers in order to gain an understanding of how to build dams and canals – the Russian Tsar wanted to reclaim the land he needed to build St Petersburg. He returned to Russia with both the knowledge he sought and a bonus – the method for making Kümmel.
Some centuries later it was being made in the distillery of Baron Von Blankenhagen in the then Russian city of Riga (Riga is now the capital of Latvia). In 1850 Von Blankenhagen asked a local Prussian merchant, Ludwig Mentzendorff , to sell his Kümmel under his own name in Britain. His company continues to sell it to this day, although these days it’s made in France, at the Combier distillery.
It used to be (decades ago) a very active and efficacious ingredient in gripe water for babies (in extremis the mothers also found it helpful), but it was prohibited from use in Britain by an Act of Parliament.
It is best served (mostly to golfers it seems) chilled to within an inch of its life!
You’ll also find it in cocktails:
- at Hawksmoor, as a Silver Bullet – gin, Kümmel, and lemon juice
- also at Hawksmoor, as The Night Shinning – with Campari and aged rum
- use it in a Trident with sherry and Cynar
- a High Chicago uses Suze and Greek Mastiha
Caraway is also used in Indian cuisine, though not as often as cumin. In Indian languages, caraway is “shahi jeera,” literally royal jeera, whereas cumin is just plain jeera.
Hello Raman, thank you so much for this input, it’s very interesting. I’ve always associated caraway so closely with northern Europe, I didn’t know it was used in India. SD