By Harold McGee
Cumin comes from a small annual plant (Cuminum cyminum) native to southwest Asia, and was enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans; the Greeks kept it at the table in its own box, much as pepper is treated today. For some reason cumin largely disappeared from European cooking during the Middle Ages, though the Spanish kept it long enough to help it take root in Mexican cooking. The Dutch still make a cuminflavored cheese, and the Savoie French a cumin bread, but cumin now mainly marks the foods of North Africa, western Asia, India, and Mexico. Its distinctive aroma comes from an unusual chemical (cuminaldehyde) that is related to the essence of bitter almond (benzaldehyde). It also has fresh and pine notes.