Reader question: What's the difference between cumin and Czech kmín?

A common newbie mistake among expats in the Czech kitchen is mixing up these two similar, but different, spices. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 30.06.2022 13:30:00 (updated on 30.10.2023) Reading time: 2 minutes

Newbies in the Czech kitchen always tend to mistake these two distinct spices, one of them (cumin) a warm and earthy spice found in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Latin American cooking, and one of them a staple of Czech cuisine (caraway or in Czech kmín).

Cumin seed / phot by Pradeep Javedar for Unsplash
Cumin seed / photo by Pradeep Javedar for Unsplash

Caraway and cumin come from the same botanical family. The seeds look very similar, though cumin seeds are lighter in color and less curved. Tastewise, the two spices differ considerably: cumin has a warm, earthy, slightly pungent flavor, whereas caraway's licorice and citrus notes are quite distinctive.

antonín veze kmín JOSEF LADA

While the etymology of carraway is unclear, it comes from the Latin Cuminum (cumin), the Greek Karon which was adapted into Latin as carum, and the Sanskrit karavi, sometimes translated as "caraway", but other times understood to mean "fennel". English use of the term caraway dates to at least 1440, possibly having Arabic origin.

According to Taste Atlas, Český kmín are caraway seeds of the "Carum carvi L-fructus" species produced in the Czech Republic on loamy, sandy, and clay soils since the first half of the 19th century. The seeds are well-formed and developed, healthy, elongated, and slightly bent.

Around this time of year, flowering cumin fields can even be smelled from the railway station in Slezské Rudoltice, which boasts a cumin field, stretching along the track to the Lužná river.

Spice shop in Prague / Facebook: Herbata
Spice shop in Prague / Facebook: Herbata

In Czechia, kmín is one of the oldest and most frequently used spices. Czechs use it in everything from goulash to soups, bread dough, sauerkraut, and potato pancakes.

It is also used in folk medicine to aid digestion and bloating. You can buy it whole (celý) or ground (mleté). Locally, however, cumin goes by the name “římský kmín,” (Roman cumin) because the Romans brought it to Europe.

If you want to shop for either Prague has two excellent spice shops including Herbata on Týnská Street which recently faced closure until a wave of social media support helped to keep it open and U Salvátora near Charles Bridge.

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