Cumin seeds are an extraordinarily versatile spice that can be used in a vast array of different dishes. They are inexpensive and common in much of the world and are a major component in the cuisine of Mexico, India, the Middle East, China, and much of Africa. The seeds tend to play a less prominent role in dishes from Europe, but are still used. Cumin seeds can be used to flavor almost any type of dish, but are more often used in savory preparations than in sweet dishes.
The flavor of cumin seeds is rich and earthy. Cumin, especially when freshly ground, also conveys a sense of spiciness to many diners, although typically less so than pepper or ginger. Like most spices, cumin is typically best purchased and stored in its whole, dried form. These seeds may then be ground before use or used whole.
Almost any savory dish can benefit from the inclusion of a bit of cumin, and cumin works well in harmony with many other spices. This is effectively illustrated by the fact that it is a part of most formulations of garam masala, a traditional spice base from northern India. Garam masala contains a blend of five or more fragrant spices whose flavors blend to produce a rich aroma and taste that is often used as a base on which additional spices can be layered.
Curries, a hybrid of Indian and European preferences in food, traditionally employ cumin, which is sometimes but not always as part of a garam masala blend. Cumin has found its way into many other savory western dishes as well. Many chili recipes employ cumin for its savory and earthy taste. Cumin seeds are also frequently used to complement other earthy spices such as bay leaves in the flavoring of stews.
Cumin seeds can be used in other savory preparations as well, including vegetable soups, where they enhance the earthy flavor typical of carrots, squash, or lentils. They are also often paired with meats that have a very rich flavor, such as lamb, where the flavor of the meat blends smoothly with that of the spices. Savory yogurt sauces are often flavored with cumin, as well.
Recipes that pair cumin with markedly sweet elements are less common, but not unheard of. Many chai recipes use it to add a rich and subtle flavor to an essentially sweet beverage. Some sweet glazes also employ cumin as a contrasting flavor note to enhance the sweetness of the glaze.