Monday, February 4, 2013

Know your spices (1) - Jeera

Every Indian woman knows this spice: cumin, jeera, jeerakam, jeergey, jeeralu. It is in my kitchen masala box too. But in spite of being so familiar with it, I realised that I had no idea where it grew! Or when! Or how it reached my kitchen! So when I spotted a big heap of jeera at Khari Baoli, I decided to ask the shopkeeper where it came from. 

Cumin (Jeera) stacked at the Spice Market at Khari Baoli (Old Delhi)
The shopkeeper looked at me somewhat irritatedly. "It comes mostly from Gujarat", he said, "and Rajasthan." Ah. So at least now I could place the spice geographically into Western India! Since the shopkeeper wasn't very forthcoming, I went to the Spice Board website, and looked up some data. It turns out that India is the largest producer of cumin in the world (80% of world output). Most of this jeera is for domestic use. Only about 20% of what we produce is exported (mainly to the US, Brazil and the UK). 

Jeera is a rabi crop, which grows in dry winters. It is sown in Oct-Nov-Dec, and harvested in Jan-Feb-March. So the best time to see jeera in the wholesale markets is in March, when major deliveries come trundling in. But you will also see jeera all through Jan-Feb (the peak tourist season!). 

The biggest "mandi" for jeera in India is in Gujarat, in a little town called Unjha (couple of hours drive north of Ahmedabad).

Ganj Bazaar, Unjha.
Photo source:
Among the larger cities, Delhi is a very big terminal market for jeera. Other big markets are at Jaipur, Jodhpur and Rajkot. The National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange has its cumin warehouse in Unjha and in Jodhpur (Salawas).  A couple of years ago, I went to Jodhpur, and I saw lots of cumin and cumin-related products (such as jeera-goli) at the Jodhpur Clock Tower market.

This is me at the wholesale grain market in Jodhpur.
Behind me you can see jute sacks filled with wheat. Like wheat, jeera is also usually packed in jute bags, with the edges sewn by hand to prevent spillage. Usually jeera is quick to absorb moisture, which spoils it and reduces its value. So it is stored away from damp areas. The jeera-goli (candied jeera) you see in the bottom-right of the photo is a digestive made with jeera, amchur (dry mango powder) and sugar. It is one of my favourite tidbits, and in fact, I don't know anyone who doesn't like it.  

Jeera is a friendly spice that gets along well with other spices :) :) My friend Hina is Gujarati, and this is her  kitchen masala box. 

Spice box from a Gujarati kitchen
Of course, there is jeera in one of the containers; but if you look again, you will see that jeera is also a key ingredient in two others :) Near the yellow turmeric, there is a dhania-jeera powder, made by dry roasting coriander and cumin and then grinding them. And just below the red chilli powder is Hina's own blend of garam masala, which contains jeera and a host of other spices.

Because jeera is such an everyday spice, it is hard to pick just one jeera-flavoured dish that is special. But if I had to choose one, I would pick the simplest of them all, jeera-aloo (potatoes flavoured with cumin). 

There are many variants of jeera-aloo. My dish above has baby potatoes tempered with jeera, finely chopped green chillies and ginger, and garnished with coriander. Some recipes use red chilli powder, garam masala and dry mango (amchur) powder. The really great thing about jeera aloo is that you can attempt any variant of it, and you'll still always end up with something good. Great for rookie cooks!! Try it!

While we're on the subject of jeera, I must talk about shahi jeera (also called kala jeera or black jeera). This is a darker, thinner spice, which looks and tastes different from the standard jeera. It grows, not in the hot dry areas of Gujarat or Rajasthan, but in the cold terrain of Kashmir and Ladakh. While jeera is used almost everywhere in India, shahi jeera is mostly seen only in Kashmiri and Mughlai cooking.
Shahi Jeera

There's a lot of confusion about shahi jeera/kala jeera. In some languages, like Assamese and Bengali for instance, kala jeera / kalo jeera is used to mean the nigella seed (kalonji), which is an entirely different thing.

Kalonji (nigella)
In Bengali cooking, kalonji and jeera come together, along with other spices, to form the very unique panch-phoron (five-spice).

Panch-phoron, photographed at the Kotla Sabzi Mandi, Delhi
Fenugreek (methi), Nigella (kalonji), Mustard seed (rai/shorshe), Fennel seed (saunf / mouri), Cumin seed (jeera)
But more about all these other spices later!! 


shobha gowri said...

I stumbled o your blog looking up spices.VEry well done .I was wondering if you added more info on other spices as well.

Unknown said...

hi mam ,
A lots of thanks for posting this information.can't tell you that how much it helps to know me about spices like jeera. can you post more details about only jeera for me .

amit said...

I need kala jeera My mo no.9568111115

Virdhara International said...

Very nice and informative article on Jeera.

Unknown said...

I want to business of zeera in Delhi.. thanks for your good idea written on below

Unknown said...

I want to business of zeera in Delhi.. thanks for your good idea written on below