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23 May 2020updated 30 Jun 2021 11:47am

The politics of the spice rack: cumin

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.

By Stephen Bush

Cumin has a unique distinction: it is the only English word whose ancestry can be traced back to Sumerian, the first written language.

The word’s ancestry reflects the plant’s ubiquity in the world’s kitchens. The seeds thrive almost everywhere, and can be eaten raw, or used to give flavour to everything from starters to desserts to drinks. So although they almost certainly originate in the Middle East, they play a central role in the cuisine of almost every country and region.

Small wonder that when I catalogued my spices, cumin outnumbered everything else. I go through a jar of the powdered stuff about every fortnight and probably get through the seeds at a similar rate.

It’s not just that it forms the bedrock of so many different recipes and cuisines, or its versatility that makes it so useful, though it certainly helps: because I don’t control what comes in my vegetable box, I will occasionally end up with a vegetable that doesn’t really go with anything else, but I’ve since learnt that a vegetable, lightly dusted with cumin and olive oil, can then either be grilled or roasted and will accompany pretty much any cuisine perfectly naturally. 

Its powerful and subtle flavour means that it is strong, but not overpoweringly so: ideal, to be frank, if something has gone wrong earlier in the process. Two weeks ago, I had reason to be thankful for the restorative properties of cumin: I had planned to make a mushroom risotto, and had chopped, sliced and begun to gently fry the vegetables accordingly. I had all of the ingredients, except one: I didn’t have any risotto rice. Although better cooks than me say that you can make risotto perfectly well without arborio rice, I have never managed it: I always end up with something with a deeply unsatisfying texture.  What I did have, fortunately, were the makings of an emergency mushroom biryani  – and while the cumin was not an essential component, it helped to balance out the otherwise incongruous and dish-ruining rosemary.

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Because cumin can come from almost anywhere, the people who grow it tend to receive a pittance – seeds are bought at a knock-down price from comparatively small growers around the world and sold to shoppers at a much higher price, though there are companies which are exceptions to this practice: I mostly use Barts, which you can find in most supermarkets or online, and Steenbergs, who deliver plastic-free through the post, for this reason.

When people argue about food, so many of the underlying arguments are really, about who gets paid: whether that’s a set-to within a household between the cook and the insufficiently appreciative or helpful eaters, or among food writers.

“Who gets paid?” was the row at the centre of the recent controversy around Alison Roman, the chef, New York Times food columnist and author of two acclaimed recipe books whose recipes are particularly famous on Instagram. In an interview with New Consumer, Roman criticised Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for “selling out” by selling cookware and home furnishing respectively.

The interview raised eyebrows because endorsing cookware is near-universal behaviour among mega-chefs – Roman herself has done so! – yet she singled out two ethnic minority women. It’s not clear why a roasting dish endorsed by Teigen is any more problematic than the 4020 celebrity roasting dishes or chopping boards you can buy in any given cookware store.

The row quickly took on the ugly contours of a break-up fight, in which one slight leads to a through airing of every growing resentment that has been building up over months or years. What distinguishes a lot of Roman’s – excellent! – recipes is that they draw heavily from the spices and foods of the Middle East but are presented as if they, like cumin, “come from nowhere”.

Her famous stew – known simply as “The Stew” in parts of the Internet – looks like, tastes like, and let’s face it, is a curry. When people pointed this out, Roman responded that she had “never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry. I come from no culture. I have no culture”. This is obviously nonsense on stilts: I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry. But my emergency dish of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, ginger, tomatoes, onions, rice and mushroom, slowly cooked in a sealed pot was undeniably a biryani. It didn’t become a cholent or a jollof just because I happen to have a Jewish and African cultural background – and that it started out life as a risotto is neither here nor there.

If I cooked a biryani for you and told you it was a chollent or a stew, let alone a risotto, you wouldn’t be able to recreate what I had done at home for yourself. Whether “the stew” started life as a stew doesn’t change the fact that it has the ingredients, taste and appeal of a curry, and if you liked it, you should learn how to make more curries, and a good cookbook should help you do so.

The reason why attribution matters in food writing is twofold. Firstly, and most importantly, it helps the reader find other recipes. When you eat the goat ragu in Zoe Adjonyoh’s Ghana Kitchen you learn two things: that goat meat is delicious and that Adjonyoh’s a fantastic cook. But what Adjonyoh does in telling you how she devised the recipe – a fusion of Ghanian and Italian cooking – is that if you liked the ragu, yes, the good news is there are 24 other brilliant recipes in her book and there are other African cusines to discover. But there’s also this thing called ragu that you should try.

That, of course, relates to the second reason why attribution matters: because if you like the goat ragu in the Ghana Kitchen, you might then track down Lope Ariyo’s excellent Hibiscus to eat more African food, or you might pick up Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Italian Cooking. Proper attribution matters because then other people get paid for their work. What Adjonyoh is doing is what all good recipe writers should do – which is allow the reader to move on.

The reason why Roman’s long-running failure to attribute where her ingredients come from, to anchor anything she makes in a wider sense about how else you can enjoy this stuff is that what it does, in practice, is deny other writers their chance to make a living from what they do, and in this case, the writers who lose out are ethnic minorities. As a result, it made people understandably unhappy that she then criticised two two ethnic minorities for making money the way big-name chefs have since the beginning of time.

The reality though is that the Roman method of recipe-writing  – which is by no means created by or unique to her – does more of a disservice to its readers than to other writers. Like the Apple computers her book shares a minimalist, sparse aethestic with, the Roman approach traps its readers within its walled garden. Once you know that the stew is a curry, god knows what you might do: you might pick up Pushpesh Pant’s India Cookbook or something. You might experiment with your own stuff. But as long as you don’t know that, look, there is other food like this, these flavour combinations don’t “come from nowhere”, well, you’ve just got to trust in this one chef. No-one ever leaves the Roman Empire. That’s not what it’s for. It doesn’t need you to know how to unlock the pleasures of cumin for yourself. It just needs you to buy the next Alison Roman book.

And that’s what I hope to be an antidote to in this space: to share a little bit about the spices I use and enjoy and the recipe books I love.