Like tiny Christmas boxes, this herb's apple green husks hint at a treasure inside the fragrant seeds that Indians call “the queen of spices”.
The name suits both it’s regal price and its alluring aroma.
Few spices cost so much.
Few have such a complex bouquet, one that is simultaneously floral, smooth yet pungent, sweet and warm yet clean and refreshing.
Unfortunately, this super spice’s high price has relegated it to a minor role in the world’s cuisines.
Most of this spice is used in a limited array of traditional, celebratory foods, Swedish Yule glogg, holiday breads and sweets, Arabic coffee served in thimble-sized cups as a gesture of hospitality, Indian masala tea and banquet pilafs.
Don’t let the cost and limited range of classic dishes dissuade you from trying this fragrant spice.
A little of it goes a long way, and its flavoring potential is enormous.
Although most of us consider this as a single spice, the word is applied to two groups of fragrant members of the ginger family.
One, called true cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum and its cultivars, produces the expensive green or white pods you’ll find at your grocery or gourmet store.
The other is a heterogeneous group of plants belonging primarily to the genera Amomum, Alpinia, and Aframomum.
The seeds of these “false” cardamoms are used as cheap regional seasonings, folk medicines, and adulterants or extenders of the “true” spice.
True cardamom is a majestic plant with long, lance-shaped leaves.
Depending on variety and cultivation, the plants grow 6 to 15 feet tall.
Like its spicy relatives (ginger, turmeric, and galanga), it's a tender perennial native to the Asian tropics and requires similar tropical conditions: fertile, well-drained soil, heat, and abundant water (ideally, an annual rainfall exceeding 100 inches).
The plants also require shade and wind protection, so most commercial cardamom is grown in semi-cleared jungle plots or on plantations inter-cropped with coffee trees, tea shrubs, betel palms, or black pepper vines.
A Limited Crop
India grows and exports most of the world’s meager cardamom crop.
Since it’s introduction into Guatemala in the 1920s, this nation has nudged Sri Lanka out of second place.
Thailand, Tanzania, and Papua New Guinea also produce small quantities for trade.
No matter where they grow, rhe plants yield only a tiny crop of pods and seeds, generally 40 to 120 pounds per cultivated acre.
This explains in part why this super spice, which retails in the United States for as much as $6 per ounce, is the world’s third most costly spice.
Only saffron and vanilla bean, which also yield paltry crops, roughly 10 and 120 pounds per acre, respectively, exceed it in price.
(Compare this to a yield of about 2000 pounds per acre of caraway seed!)
Production, like that of saffron and vanilla, involves extensive hand labor.
All cultivation is manual, and pickers harvest the pods one at a time with scissors.
Because the pods on a stalk ripen at different times, the laborers must examine each plant frequently to catch the pods at their peak, just before they ripen and split.
Once picked, the pods are rinsed, trimmed, and heat-cured to stop enzymatic degradation, fix the green color, and dry them.
Alternatively, the pods may be dried and bleached by exposure to the sun or to burning sulfur fumes, steps that produce attractive straw white pods.
To keep the pods dry and minimize flavor loss, the processors pack the pods in waterproof lined wooden boxes or tins.
Folk Cures & Lore
This spice has minimal medicinal value, but it plays multiple roles in the folk apothecary as an antiseptic, digestive stimulant, and cough medicine; it’s also taken to relieve flatulence and morning sickness, induce sweating, and improve eyesight.
Whereas some cultures, particularly Arabic, believe it to be an aphrodisiac, some Indians believe that eating too much will lead to impotence.
Perhaps the effects cancel each other in those who notice neither effect.
A more widely held belief is that this spice will give your mouth a fresh, clean taste.
Both the Chinese and Indians have recognized this for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Even today, this spice remains an element of the Indian after-dinner ritual of chewing spices to stimulate digestion and freshen breath, and Scandinavian men are said to disguise alcoholic breath by sucking on the seeds.
In The Kitchen
Three regions of the world consume nearly all of the world’s production of this super spice.
In the Middle East, it's used primarily to flavor sweets and coffee.
In fact, nearly half of the world’s total export is consumed in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in spiced gahwa (coffee)!
In Scandinavia, it's used to flavor cooked fruits, meatballs, pea soup, pickled herring, rice puddings, sausages, and aquavit (a clear liquor similar to gin), as well as numerous traditional breads, cookies, pancakes, and glogg.
In India, it's an ingredient of most garam masala spice blends and sweets, chai (hot tea), and some savory dishes such as pilaf, dhal, and curries.
It's an excellent flavoring for winter squash and root vegetables (especially carrots, yams, and sweet potatoes).
A pinch cuts the unctuousness of goose, duck, and other fatty meats.
It is excellent with any pastry, especially buttery cookies and cakes; to marry the butter and fruit in blueberry muffins or berry-topped waffles; and to add a clean edge to creamy puddings and custards.
Try adding a pinch—no more—the next time you make fruit salad, carrot cake, rice pudding, apricot jam, cheesecake, flambéed bananas, or berries soaked in brandy.
You’ll be pleased with the results.
Basmati Rice Pilaf
The complex yet delicate flavor of cardamom turns Basmati Rice Pilaf into a sumptuous side dish.
If black cardamom pods aren’t available, substitute the seeds of six green or white pods or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom.
Use homemade chicken stock if possible.
• 2 c. basmati rice
• 1/3 c. raisins
• 4 c. chicken stock
• 2 Tbs. butter
• 2 c. chopped onions
• 1/4 c. chopped, shelled green
• Pistachio nuts
• 4 black cardamom pods
• 2 tsp. ground coriander
• 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
• 1 to 3 tsp. sugar
• Sea salt to taste
1. Place the rice in a large sieve, remove any stones or other debris, and rinse it well with water.
Set aside to drain.
2. Soak the raisins in the stock.
3. Melt the butter in a large skillet fitted with a lid.
Add the onions and sauté over moderate heat until they are transparent.
Add the nuts and sauté for 2 minutes longer.
Add the spices and sauté for about 1 minute, then add the drained rice.
Heat, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until most of the adhering water has evaporated.
4. Add the sugar, raisins, and stock.
Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender and all liquid has been absorbed.
Add salt to taste.
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