Learning to cook authentic Indian food can be a dizzyingly confusing experience. I've stared for far too long at the spice shelves in my local Indian grocery, trying to match the Indian name for a spice with something familiar.
Jeera was one that I needed to decipher quickly. Many recipes I wanted to try called for it, and it didn't take long to realize that cumin - that toasty spice with a slight citrus tang, familiar from Latin American cuisine - was the same thing. Regular white cumin and the more floral black cumin, known as shah jeera, are extremely ancient spices; references to them are found in the Old Testament and in Greek literature.
Cumin is used quite a lot in much Indian cooking, and it's one of the basic building blocks of almost every curry powder and masala. I've grown to appreciate it for its texture as well as its flavor, too. When used whole, and "spluttered" briefly in oil before adding the meat, it gives a tiny crunch with a pleasant explosion of warm spice.