Spice Rack: Cumin and Coriander, the Ancient, Dynamic Duo

Coriander and cumin. They go together like... peanut butter and jelly?

Well, sort of. While cumin lends a musky perfume, coriander is more citrus-like, even a little dusty. They complement in each other in cuisines around the world -- Cuban, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Lebanese -- and they've been pals for ages.

These spice girls have been hanging together a really long time.

Spice power: Coriander (left) and cumin (right) seeds. (Kim O'Donnel)

In fact, there are biblical references to both plants in the book of Exodus (16:31):

And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

And in the book of Isaiah (28:25):

When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place?

In this country, coriander (coriandrum sativium) refers to the fruit seeds of the green leafy plant known as cilantro,but in many other parts of the word, coriander is used to refer to both the fresh and dried versions. The green leaves are pungent in a citrusy sort of way; they've been described as soapy. You either love it or hate it, but you might like it when its seeds are ground and mixed with other spices, as it's lighter and brighter without the intensity of cumin.

Pickling is one of the few applications when whole seeds are used; otherwise, they're ground and incorporated into curries, spice pastes, stews, even desserts. It figures into the cuisines of the Middle East, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and in some countries, the whole plant is used, even the root.

Nutritionally, coriander is quite the hot number. It has been studied for its abilities to control blood sugar, which would be helpful for diabetics, and has long been considered useful for its anti-inflammatory properties. I've also read of its antibacterial qualities, as for its detoxifying power, which means remember to take your coriander when you've in bed with a cold or flu.

Unlike its multifaceted cousin, cumin (cuminum cyminum) is used in seed (or ground) form only. Bigger and darker than the fennel seed, but difficult to pick out in a lineup with the caraway seed (another relative), the cumin seed packs a major flavor punch and plays well with others, such as cinnamon, cayenne and ground herbs such as oregano and thyme.

It figures into spice powders, mixtures and masalas around the world -- chili powder in Mexico, curry powders of Southeast Asia, berbere of Ethiopia and Eritrea, plus the sofrito of Cuba and Puerto Rico. I can't imagine not cooking without cumin. In fact, when I smell that musk, I know things are really happening in my kitchen.

If you haven't done so, try toasting whole cumin seeds rather than using the ground stuff and cooking them with onions as a zing-y option for soup garnish and a pot of dal.

Nutritionally, cumin is known as a good source of iron, as well as a digestive aid, which I thought was limited to fennel seeds (a la the fennel candy served at Indian restaurants).

Cumin and coriander. Get to know them if you haven't already. They're seriously old dogs with an infinite number of tricks.

Share your love (or loathing) for these spice girls in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 20, 2008; 10:45 AM ET Spice Rack
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I like the taste of cumin, but I can't stand the smell! For some reason it just doesn't sit well with me. I can eat it as long as I haven't smelled it. I have never used corriander--that's one I will have to try!

Posted by: Anonymous | February 20, 2008 2:23 PM

I love both spices and use them frequently, but I never really thought about how they differ and complement eachother. But it does seem like when a recipe calls for one, it calls for the other too. One question, is it "coo-min" or "que-min"?

Posted by: Phoebe | February 20, 2008 3:36 PM

OH, a girl after my own heart!

Cumin, I think, is my all time favorite spice. It's sooo good in anything! And being Cuban, yes, I use it in ALL my food! My mom thinks I go overboard with it, but it really does give my beans, meats, and even salads, a really nice and smokey, robust flavor.

Phoebe: I say "quemin" but I've hear plenty others say "coomin"....

Love the Biblical reference!

Posted by: FlaNboyantEats | February 20, 2008 3:54 PM

Hello Kim

Coriander: Yes, in all its manifestations, seed, leaf, and root (used in SE Asian food).

Cumin: No more than a pinch. Can't stand more than that. In India I had a hard time gastronomically because most restaurant food uses chillies and cumin (local name, zeera) to excess. A scant pinch of cumin is fine, but I find that a larger quantity renders a dish inedible.

Posted by: David Lewiston | February 20, 2008 5:29 PM

mmmm I love cumin and coriander, especially to spice up otherwise plain vegetables. Just fry those two up and then add the greens. I pronounce que-min (is it wrong that people who say coo-min annoy me?)

Posted by: Julie | February 20, 2008 6:55 PM

According to the Merriam-Webster, American Heritage and Compact Oxford English dictionaries, the pronunciation is neither coo-min nor que-min... it is "cum-min," as in "Don't leave, I'm comin'!"

American Heritage says it is in the carrot family and OED says it is in the parsely family... although I could see where carrots and parsley could be cousins, given the foliage and tap roots.

Dictionary also says cumin is cultivated for its "seed-like fruits." So that's an interesting twist on the 'seed' idea.

Might have to do some more poking around. This has piqued my curiousity. Wonder if we could grow it this summer on our herb rack....

Posted by: Anonymous | February 21, 2008 9:54 AM

How would one go about taking coriander when sick? Could you crush it and steep it with tea in a tea ball?

Posted by: Cara | February 21, 2008 12:08 PM

There are at least two varieties of coriander plant. One we grew last year has tiny thread-like leaves, with the same fine fresh taste in the leaves and the same coriander spiciness in the seed. Understand that these guys grow to 3-4 feet in height, so that herb rack might be overwhelmed!

Posted by: Jack Etsweiler | February 21, 2008 12:24 PM

Coriander used to be the main spice in baloney and hot dogs. Don't know if it still is in mainstream products; the only boloney we buy is made by a German sausage maker, and I can taste the coriander seed in it. Yum.

And mace was what made Animal Crackers taste so good.

Posted by: Fran | February 21, 2008 3:43 PM

PS - love coriander seed but hate coriander leaf!

Posted by: Fran | February 21, 2008 3:44 PM

I adore both these spices!

I use cumin (I say que-min) and cilantro all the time, but have only recently started to use coriander seeds. I've been on an Indian kick lately, and a lot of my recipes are calling for ground coriander.

I too know that my kitchen is groovin' when I smell these two fantastic spices!

Posted by: Earlysun | February 21, 2008 10:11 PM

I am on such a cumin kick right now. I add it - along with some other spices - to the water when making rice or couscous. Sprinkle it on my chicken. And the other day, I made the BEST steak by generously sprinkling cumin all over it. A little salt and pepper and then cooked in some olive oil until medium rare. Yum!

Posted by: Debbie | February 26, 2008 9:55 PM

When I was growing up, my mom and grandparents would always make tamales with cumin. I somehow decided I didn't like cumin and the first batch of tamales I made, I did without. That was quite a mistake, and I now use cumin quite frequently in my cooking.

I like to add some fresh coriander seed (ground) to homemade bread. Gives it a great fragrance and taste.

Posted by: Jenn | February 27, 2008 12:37 PM

Haiku for the Spice Girls

My idea of Love?
Coriander and cumin,
dancing together.

Posted by: coyote | February 27, 2008 12:40 PM

Today for lunch I had an apple salad with cilantro, green onions, celery and oil and cider vinegar. It was great. The day before I had home-smoked chicken salad with cumin-salt, cilantro and celery. Looking for new recipes for everyday lunches.

Posted by: Kathleen | February 28, 2008 8:21 PM

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