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Aromatic seeds have been used to whet appetites since the first meals in recorded history.

The scent of toasting cumin perfumed kitchens in areas now known as Egypt and Syria more than two millennia B.C.

Cumin seed is most widely known in the United States in its ground form, as a warm partner in blended chili powder. But Indian, Mexican and Syrian cooks, among others, revel in the deeper, nutty flavor of the whole seed, and its dusky crunch.

Like any aromatic seeds, cumin should always be toasted before use. Put a couple tablespoons of seed into a dry pan, over medium heat. As water evaporates, the seeds will start to toast, and should be moved so they don't burn.

Once they're uniformly golden and the aroma is intense, remove from heat and stir to cool.

Spiceopolis: In ancient Persia, now Iran, the city of Kerman was known for its cumin seed. It led to the Persian saying for unnecessary labor, akin to "Carrying coals to Newcastle": Taking cumin to Kerman.

Hardy herb: Cumin's popularity in the Middle East is abetted by its drought-resistant hardiness, which meant that even Old Testament (Book of Isaiah) and New Testament (Gospel of Matthew) cooks routinely used it.


Cilantro chicken

4 to 5 pounds bone-in chicken thighs

1 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and stems

1 bunch scallions, cleaned and chopped

2 poblano peppers, seeded and sliced

10-12 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon cumin seed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, lard or bacon fat

2 limes, halved (optional)

2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)



Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Skin chicken thighs and salt liberally.

Heat fat in large pan over high heat. Brown chicken thighs, in batches.

In another small pan, toast cumin seed over medium heat, shaking frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat.

Put half the cilantro in the bottom of a baking dish, like a 9 by 13 pan. Arrange the browned thighs in a single layer. Shower with remaining cilantro, garlic, poblanos and cumin seed.

Add water up to four-fifths the height of the chicken pieces. Cover pan with foil and place in oven. Braise until quite tender, 2 to 3 hours.

Taste and apply salt as needed. If using, squeeze limes over pan. A few tablespoons of cream stirred into the pan juices wouldn't hurt, either.

Serve over rice, pasta or potatoes with pan juices.


ON THE WEB: To watch a video of this dish being prepared, go to

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