Think of cumin, and you probably think Indian food. Or Mexican. Or fake Mexican, like Lawry’s taco seasoning. In any case, foie gras probably doesn’t come to mind. Yet it’s on the menu at Manresa in Los Gatos, California, in a savory caramel flan with foie gras.

A spice normally used in rustic, home-style food from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, cumin is increasingly entering the repertoires of high-end U.S. chefs —often in ways you wouldn’t expect. The Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point, California, serves a cumin-accented Liberty Farm duck breast. You can find a deconstructed dish of quince, cumin, shiso, and sour cream at Chicago’s Alinea. Philadelphia’s Capogiro Gelato Artisans makes a honey-cumin ice cream.

Using cumin, which features prominently in the cuisines of Morocco, Spain, Mexico, India, and Iran, is an easy way to make a dish taste exotic to an American palate. But chefs are also discovering that it can achieve subtler results when used in smaller doses. It can add depth when layered with other spices, or round out rough edges. “Cumin was the right spice to balance any bitterness in the caramel and still make it a distinctly savory dish,” explains chef David Kinch of Manresa.

It can also evoke powerful memories of home cooking, comfort, and nourishment. “When I create pork dishes, it seems that cumin sneaks in more times than not,” says Peter Rudolph, executive chef at San Francisco’s Campton Place. “I believe it’s a reference to a barbecue sauce my father used to make while I was growing up.”

We like to use cumin to make Grilled Skirt Steak with Caramelized Butter and Cumin, and Potato, Quinoa, and Cumin Hash Browns. These will make your kitchen smell unbearably good.

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