CUMIN (Pers. zīra, Ar. kammūn; Cuminum cyminum L.), an umbelliferous plant of the Old World and its aromatic seeds. In Persia the word zīra/žīra (cf. Hindi/Urdu jīrā < Sk. jīraka “cumin seed”) also desig­nates caraway seeds (Ar. karāwīā, with variants), Carum carvi L., another umbellifer. The two species are usually distinguished by the epithets sīāh (black) or kermānī (from Kermān) for caraway and sabz (green) for cumin. In early medico-pharmacological texts and in some dictionaries the (now obsolete) terms zīra-ye rūmī (Anatolian cumin), šāh-zīra (royal cumin), and qoronbād also refer to caraway (Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿīn, s.vv.).

The modern scientific nomenclature of zīras and related umbelliferous seeds in Persia is not as simple as the above description may suggest. Confusion exists even among modern botanists. David Hooper and Henry Field, while retaining zīra-ye sabz for Cuminum cyminum (p. 109), defined zīra-ye sīāh/kermānī (toḵm­-e zīra in Tehran [sic]) as the fruit of the umbelliferous Carum bulbocastanum Koch, “the spice called black caraway of Iran and northern India” (p. 95). On the other hand, Walī-Allāh Moẓaffarīān has used the term zīra-ye sīāh for the seeds of both Carum carvi (p. j) and Bunium L. persicum (p. b) but has specified that “what is used as zīra in Persia and especially in Kermān and constitutes an export article [of Persia] is [obtained from] Bunium persicum.” Hooper and Field recorded qoronbād as the name of Curcuma aromatica Salisb. (fam. Zingiberaceae), apparently owing to lexical simi­larity with zoronbād “zedoary,” and reported further that what is called qordomānā (see below) in Tehran and “keruwiah” (kerowīa?) in Isfahan is the fruit of Chaerophyllum sp. (for the nine species of this umbel­lifer found in Persia and some adjacent regions, see Moẓaffarīān, pp. 68-72; only one is mentioned as “useful,” Chaerophyllum bulbosum L., “the root of which, cooked or fried, is eaten in some countries”; p. b). To add to the confusion, Hooper and Field re­ported, on the authority of the botanist Otto Stapf, that the “keruwiah from Chahar Mahāl (see čahār maḥāll) and sold for medicine in Isfahan is [from] an allied umbelliferous plant, Grammosciadium macrodon Boiss.” (for reports of the latter plant in Lorestān, the Baḵtīārī area, and Kurdistan, see Moẓaffarīān, pp. 67-­68).

This pervasive confusion about zīra can be traced back to the 9th-century Arabic translation of the works of Dioscorides (Dīosqūrīdes) and Galen (Jālīnūs). Dioscorides, in his De Materia Medica, described the following umbellifers, which have similar seeds and medicinal properties: Kuminon emeron (wild cumin; Ar. kammūn barrī), traditionally identified as Cuminum cyminum (cf. his mention of a kind of “wild cumin” with seeds like those of nigella, Pers. sīāh-dāna, šūnīz); Kuminon agrion (cultivated cumin; Ar. kammūn), traditionally identified as Lagoecia cuminoides L., with varieties described as Ethiopian (Ar. kermānī [sic], called “kingly” [Ar. molūkī] by Hippocrates), Egyp­tian (Ar. meṣrī), and so on; Karos (Ar. karāwīā, qoronbād/qoronqār), the caraway; Ámmi, which, according to him, is also called “the Ethiopian ámmi” and “kingly cumin” (basilikon kuminon), traditionally iden­tified as Ammi copticum L. (= Carum copticum Benth. & Hook., etc.), bishop’s weed (tr. as Pers. nānḵᵛāh; Dioscorides, bk. 3, pp. 300-04 nos. 66, 68-70; cf. Ebn al-Bayṭār, II, pt. 4, pp. 64-65, 81-83, 173-74).

Avicenna, though quoting Dioscorides’ description, declared (I, bk. 2, p. 341) that there are numerous varieties of kammūn, including the black kermānī, the yellow fārsī, the Syrian, and the Nabatean, each variety being either wild (barrī) or cultivated (bostānī). Under karāwīā (p. 342) he quoted from Dioscorides the description of a plant different from the caraway. The qardamānā, another plant men­tioned as a species or kind of zīra in some medical texts of the early Islamic period, has been the subject of further misinterpretation and confusion. In Avicenna’s text qardamānā (p. 417) corresponds exactly to Dioscorides’ kardámômom (bk. 1, p. 8 no. 5), the cardamom, but some medical authors of the Islamic period, probably misled by the similarity of the Syriac qardamānā and the arabicized form qarda­māmūn to the qīmīnūn aḡrīūn (kyminon agrion) of Dioscorides, took qardamānā for karāwīā or a “wild” variety of it (Dymock et al., II, pp. 113-22; Renaud and Colin, p. 148 no. 340; Meyerhof, in Ebn Maymūn, pp. 97 no. 195, 167-68 no. 334; Dietrich, Ar. text, p. 13 nos. 1/5, pp. 57-58, 90 3/55). Even the great botanist and pharmacologist Ebn al-Bayṭār uncritically listed under qardamānā (p. 7) the descriptions of three different plants by three different authors: his teacher Abu’l-ʿAbbās al-Nabātī’s description of a kind of umbellifer abundant in Andalusia, where it was called “mountain caraway“ (karawīā jabalīya) because of its resemblance to the caraway plant; Esḥāq b. ʿEmrān’s description of a plant resembling the camomile (bābūnaj); and Dioscorides’ description of the kardámômom. Similar confusion is found in Persian texts. Mowaffaq Heravī identified qardamānā with wild karāwīā but included a separate article on each (pp. 259, 265). Aḵawaynī Boḵārī (10th century) seems to have considered the qardamānā a kind of caraway; he referred to cardamom as qāqola (passim). Bīrūnī (p. 304; Pers. tr., I, pp. 543-44) also confused the two different plants designated as qardamānā (i.e., karāwīā rūmī and Dioscorides’ kardámômom). The synonymy continued to the time of Moḥammad-Moʾmen Ḥosaynī Tonokābonī (pp. 664-73) and ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī (18th century; pp. 680-81).

The numerous medicinal virtues and uses mentioned for the different kinds of zīra by medical writers of the Islamic period are substantially those described by Dioscorides and Galen, all derived from the “hot” nature (Galen) and calefacient, siccative, and astringent action (Dioscorides) attributed to cumin, cara­way, and the like. Zīras were, and still are, prescribed, alone or in combination with the seeds of anise, fennel, bishop’s weed, and the like, mainly for their carmina­tive, stomachic, and astringent action. Among classi­cal authors Aḵawaynī Boḵārī, author of the earliest known Persian treatise on medicine, provided the greatest number of uses for the zīra, karāwīā, and qardamānā, some of which seem to have been derived from his personal experience and practice. He also prescribed zīra-bā (an āš, flavored with zīra; cf. Ar. zīrabāj) as a special dietary dish for fifteen types of illness (index, s.v.). The recipe for this dietary āš given by Tonokābonī (p. 461) includes minced meat (or boned chicken) cooked with cinnamon, chickpeas, and sesame oil, then mixed with vinegar, rose water, almonds, dried coriander, saffron, zīra, and so on. The poet Bosḥāq Aṭʿema lauded zīra-bā or āš-e zīra (p. 10) as a sour āš, euphoriant (mofarreḥ) for patients.

Zīra has also been used as a spice. It was mentioned several times as such by Bosḥāq, particularly in con­nection with a kind of kolūča/kolīča (cookies) on which it was sprinkled (pp. 23, 93), with a kind of meatball (pp. 56, 79), and with one or two kinds of pilaf (pp. 79, 91). In the Safavid period zīra was used as a “hot” spice in several kinds of pilaf, in some qalyas, in a kind of kūkū, in būrānī, and so on (Bāvaṛčī, pp. 53, 103, 104, 106, 108, 112; Nūr-Allāh, pp. 209-10, 235, 238, 248; see cooking iii). In the Qajar period there was a sharp decline in the use of zīra, at least at court. Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah’s chef, Mīrzā ʿAlī-Akbar (pp. 10, 36), used it only as one of the spices in a kind of morḡ palāv (pilaf with fried chicken and barberries, still common) and in a thick soup called šola-ye beryānī. Nowadays whole zīra-ye sīāh/kermānī seeds are used in mixed fruit pickles, in a few pilafs like zīra polow (plain pilaf with zīra), morḡ polow (chicken pilaf), and kabk polow (partridge pilaf, now a rarity; Dastūr-e ṭabbāḵī, p. 61; Montaẓemī, pp. 658-59, 565, 571). In Kermān powdered zīra is one of the spices in several local pastries, for example, kolomp/ba and komāč-e seh/yn (usually served at funeral parties), and in a variety of qāvūt (Kermān: qowwatū, Shiraz: qowtak; pulverized roasted peas mixed with sugar and carda­mom) usually served to mothers after childbirth and sometimes to their visitors (information provided by native informants).

Zīra seeds, in addition to their traditional reputation as carminative and astringent, yield a distillate (ʿaraq) commercially advertised as “antifatness, very demulcent, good against asthma, tonic, digestive, carminative, galactogogic,” and so on (from the promo­tional folder “Araqīyāt-e sonnatī” [Traditional distil­lates] published by Īrān Targol company, Shiraz and Tehran).

The zīra is widely cultivated in most areas bordering on the central salt desert (Dašt-e kavīr) of Persia, including the regions of Sabzavār, southern Khorasan, Kāšān, Yazd, and especially Kermān, where reputedly the best variety (the black) grows (Ṭabāṭabāʾī, I, pp. 716-17); hence the proverbial expression zīra be Kermān bordan (lit., “to take zīra to Kermān,” i.e., “to carry coals to Newcastle”). Owing to the vast area under promiscuous cultivation of various zīras (which permits free cross pollination) and to other ecological factors, there are numerous cultivated and natural varieties of zīra (caraway, cumin, etc.), differing in seed coloration (black, dark brown, yellowish brown, greenish, etc.), size (4-10 mm long, 1-1.5 mm thick), aroma, taste, and so on (Ṭabāṭabāʾī, pp. 717, 719). Wild zīras are found not only in the areas mentioned but also elsewhere in Persia (see Parsa, II, pp. 733, 861; Zargarī, II, p. 514; Moẓaffarīān, pp. 55, 59-60, 147). Information on the cultivation of karāwīā and zīra around Herat was provided by Abūnaṣrī Heravī in 921/1515-16 (p. 103).

The zīra is a minor export of Persia. According to the latest available data, from 1368 Š./1989-90, 40,700 kg of zīra-ye sīāh, valued at Rls. 151,302, were exported to Dubai, and 10,823,356 kg of zīra-ye sabz, valued at Rls. 855,590,556, were exported to the People’s Re­public of China, Taiwan, Dubai, Qatar, and England, in decreasing order of importance (Gomrok-e Jomhūrī-­e eslāmī-e Īrān, Āmār-e bāzargānī-e ḵārejī, 1368 Š./1989, p. 515).



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(Hūšang Aʿlam)

Originally Published: December 15, 1993

Last Updated: November 2, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VI, Fasc. 5, pp. 452-454