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Tumeric vs. cumin

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There's a small discount sundries place (9 East 39th in NYC, if you're in the neighborhood) that by some fluke, has a few Spice Island spices on sale. They don't have curry powder - I use small amounts of mild curry as a sort of enhancer - but they do have tumeric and cumin, which I know are used in curry.

Can I use either one of them instead of buying the usual curry blend? I have no idea what they taste like separately.

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  1. Turmeric has hardly any taste, but is used mainly to give a nice color to curry dishes. Cumin, however, is a wonderful, highly tasty and aromatic spice. It is sometimes used in curry powder blends. Cumin is also used in Mexican and North African (Moroccan, etc.) cooking.

    1. You can't use just one as a substitute. I think cumin is a little more friendly on its own, but if they are on sale, buy both and experiment. Cumin is great in mexican food as well as curries. Turmeric I find a little musty, i think frequently it is used mostly for color.

      1. curry (Madras< which is the common type usually sold in groceries) is a blend of cumin, tumeric, coriander, fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, garlic, mustard and cayenne, in varying amounts. The color comes primarily from the tumeric, which has little flavor, the coriander and the cayenne, or paprika, which will be used sometimes. you can play with these and try adding some otf the spices which are used in garam masala, including cinnamon, nutmeg allspice and some of the above spices in the Madras. It's fun, especially if you try the whole spices and toast and grind them yourself.

        1. if you were to buy 1, pick the cumin. i put it in EVERYTHING savory that doesn't have much going for it on its own like (non green veggies) - every meat, eggs, soup, potatoes, cabbage (even every cole slaw i make), carrots.. yum. great in cottage cheese, sour cream or yogurt + cumin make a great dip. all in all, lovely. cumin+cinnamon = heaven.

          5 Replies
            1. re: reannd

              Disagree - personally I think cumin used in foods that aren't being cooked is a little bit armpit-like. However, when using it in cooking and braising and sauteeing and roasting and grilling......etc etc......... it is delicious and imparts a great flavor.

              1. re: laurendlewis

                I wouldn't go so far as to say "armpit-like," but it does have a strong, smoky flavor that can take over if not used judiciously. I came across a caterer's cheat sheet that said adding cumin to a dish automatically makes it taste "exotic" to most Americans, which I've found to be generally accurate.

                1. re: laurendlewis

                  My Indian style raitta, a yogurt based dip, is usually made with curmin, preferably freshly toasted and ground seeds. Fennel seeds are an alternative that some might like better.


                  1. re: laurendlewis

                    That's funny, Diana Kennedy says too much cumin tastes like sweat.

                    I personally love cumin and salmon together. I had a cumin-seed crusted salmon en croute in Paris that I still think about fondly. I've had good success bathing salmon in olive oil and cumin seeds and grilling it on a cedar plank. Cumin is also nice with baby turnips, cooked in a light tomato sauce.

                    I would agree that cumin is the more adaptable spice. Too much tumeric can give things a bitter taste, which in some recipes may be the objective.

                2. cumin is also the common ingredient (with red pepper) between curry and chili powder, and a strong component of the taste of both.

                  1. Are you all buying stale turmeric? To my taste, it has a bitter, earthy flavor, which used judiciously is quite delicious in complement to other spices. It's mostly used in combination with other spices, because of its bitter pungency. Yeah, the color is its hallmark, but it also has its own flavor.

                    1. turmeric is not really meant to be used for flavor. It is overabundant in Western curry powders, so many people think that it is the main ingredient that makes something "curried." Turmeric is actually used in very small amounts in S. Asian cooking. That is a mistake I see with people experimenting with S. Asian food, dumping a huge heaping spoon of turmeric into the dish (that would cause that "musty" taste---not meant to be there). Actually, in a normal recipe (say feeding 6-8 ppl) one would only use about 1/2 tsp of turmeric. It is not used for flavor at all. According to principles of Indian food as medicine, or Ayurvedic properties of food, turmeric is anti-bacterial and also aids digestion. It also kills the smell in meats, chicken, and fish. So it purifies the food and makes it easier to digest. The vast majority of S. Asian curries are not yellow colored from turmeric at all. They are brown from carmalized onions, tannish brown from yoghurt or coconut milk cooked with other brown colored spices. Or they are reddish from being tomato based. Red chili powder also makes curries slightly reddish, but that is another ingredient misunderstood and overused by experimenters. 1/2 tsp to 1 full tsp would be used, and fresh green chilies or whole dried red chilies (which will not color the entire dish) are used for more heat---no one really dumps huge spoons of red chili powder or turmeric in a curry. So turmeric is a main ingredient in Western curry powders, but it is actually not so important. Cumin, on the other hand IS important, but does not a curry make.
                      A very simple seasoning combination would be, say 1 tsp coriander powder, 1 tsp cumin powder, 1/2 tsp red chili powder, 1/2 tsp turmeric. Then you could buy a spice mix called "garam masala" (a mix of various spices, called "garam" or hot because these spices have warming properties according to Ayurvedic principles) and ad 1/2 tsp of this garam masala to your dish at the end of cooking. Garam masalas usually contain cumin anyway, but you would also be adding tiny amounts of cardamom, bay leaf, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and perhaps someother spices depending on the brand. Added to the dish at the end of cooking, this lifts the flavors. There are also curry recipes in which the main spice combination is a heaping spoon of garam masala. But never, ever a heaping spoon of turmeric.

                      1. The aroma you most likely are associating with curry is fenugreek, so if you are trying to substitute one spice for the mix, use that. Your best bet is to use some other replies, get all the base ingredients to a curry, and experiment until you get an aroma you like!

                        1. probably the spices are old and not worth buying!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: alkapal

                            This is a good point, spices definitely have a shelf life and if you're finding these in a discount store they have probably exceeded that life.

                            Also, cumin is MUCH better when bought in the seed form and ground yourself using a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder or just some elbow grease! As OP have said, toasting the seeds in a dry skillet on medium high heat for about a minute adds a great flavor). I've found whole cumin seeds in gourmet grocers for less than $2. I've been using that same batch for over a year and haven't run out. If you're looking to cut costs i'd recoomend having Ramen Noodles for lunch one meal this week and buying the whole cumin seeds!

                          2. No, you can't substitute cumin or turmeric for curry powder. But if you want to have curry powder around you can easily make your own.

                            First off, don't buy any of the stuff in the glass jars. It's hideously overpriced, even on closeout. Instead, find an ethnic market that sells the spices you want and buy them in little glassine bags. My local supermarket sells a glass jar with 1.5 oz of ground cumin for about $3; a 3-ounce package at the carniceria across the street is $.69. And regardless of price, avoid the pre-ground stuff. It has no shelf life. Buy whole spices and a $5 coffee grinder that will be used only for spices (unless you like curried coffee). Trust me, it's worth the hassle.

                            Enough preamble. If you want an all-purpose curry powder, put 1 teaspoon each of black peppercorns, cumin, coriander, and cardamom (cardamom seeds, not whole cardamom pods), 1/2 teaspoon each of fenugreek, fennel, and mustard seeds, and three whole cloves in a small skillet. Toast them over low heat until they become fragrant. Dump the whole mess in your grinder and whir until everything's a fine powder. Add a teaspoon or two of turmeric if you want the yellow color, mix together, and store in a tightly-sealed jar.

                            1. A common use for turmeric is as a substitute for the more expensive saffron when making paella. I prefer saffron. But then, I'm allergic to turmeric. '-) It does have a flavor of its own, though not overpowering. It's used in a lot of prepared pickles.

                              Cumin is (as you know) a great multi-use spice. But I agree with Diane Kennedy" Too much tastes like sweat.

                              You can find some really good recipes on line for making your own curry powder. Most friends from India make their own, and chuckle at something on a spice shelf labeled "Curry Powder."

                              1. Am I the only one who has stopped using turmeric because it stains my cookware? Did that mean I was using too much?

                                As for cumin, I do love it. For some reason it's great with carrots, and of course it is essential to the All-American Chile.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: sea97horse

                                  The compounds that produce the yellow coloration of turmeric are also photosensitive. When I stain dishes or tuperware, I put them in bright light to fade away within a day or so.

                                  1. re: sea97horse

                                    It shouldn't stain stainless steel. Are you talking about metal or ceramic cookware or plastic storage containers? It might stain aluminum, but I have very little experience with aluminum cookware. Anyone else?