Once considered one of the world’s most precious spices—reserved for holidays, weddings and other special occasions—cardamom is captivating a new generation of admirers. With a hint of clove, the spiciness of ginger, and overtones of vanilla and citron, cardamom can add layers of complex, subtle flavor to any dish.
Native to the monsoon forests of southern India and Sri Lanka, true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a perennial herb and member of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. Like ginger, cardamom has a fleshy rhizome and long, lance-shaped leaves. Delicate white flowers appear at the base of the tall plants in springtime, giving way to green seed pods (or fruits) in autumn. Within the papery pods are cardamom’s prized seeds, richly aromatic and intensely flavored. Many other cardamoms (mostly Amomum spp.)—including Cambodian, Bengal, Siamese and Java—grow throughout Asia and Australia, but these black-podded types lack the complex flavor of true cardamom.
Because of its woodland origins, cardamom proved a perfect shade-loving secondary crop for tea and coffee plantations, and the spice has been a favorite flavoring for both beverages for centuries. In Arabic countries, cardamom commonly is ground and brewed with coffee, while in India, it often is added to tea.
Growing Cardamom at Home
Cardamom can be grown as an outdoor perennial only in Zones 10 and 11 (southern Florida, Puerto Rico and Hawaii). Elsewhere, grow this tropical herb in a pot. I maintain a large pot of cardamom given to me some 30 years ago by an elderly plant collector who was downsizing her possessions. To be honest, that plant has thrived on abuse. It even froze once and came back from its rhizomes without extra pampering.
True to its original habitat, cardamom prefers rich, woodsy soil, filtered shade and room to grow. If pot-bound, it often refuses to flower, so you must keep dividing the plant and passing it out to friends (a great gift, by the way). Even if your plant does not bloom, you will have an abundant supply of fragrant leaves, which I find as desirable as the spice itself.
Cardamom does not like chilly weather, so move your plant indoors in fall, as soon as the temperature drops into the 40s. It will thrive on a sunny windowsill, especially if you mist it
periodically, or shower it in the bathtub from time to time. In the wild, cardamom thrives on abundant rain; a potted cardamom also needs ample moisture, but it won’t tolerate poor drainage, which can cause the rhizomes to rot. To improve drainage, simply mix some sand into the potting soil.
From late winter through midsummer, feed your plant biweekly with fish emulsion. If you have a hot house, keep your plant in a shady corner and let it naturalize in situ.
Not Just Desserts
Cardamom is a key ingredient in curries, sauces, soups, desserts, sausages and beverages. It is a natural match for many Asian rice dishes, and adds a wonderfully unique flavor to a range of ice creams. The seeds lose their flavor quickly when ground, so try to buy only whole pods, and crush them just before use.
Cardamom’s fragrant oil is used in perfumes and medicines. To me, few aromas are more refreshing than that of freshly crushed cardamom leaves. For sweeter sleep, tuck a few leaves into your pillow at night. Before you know it, you will be dreaming peacefully of far-off places. In the morning, you will awaken refreshed, and with your hair delicately scented by the queen of spices.
Queen of Spices
If pepper is “King of Spices,” surely cardamom is Queen, as it is known in India. The two have been intertwined for as long as spices have been traded between East and West. Ancient Greek and Roman merchants obtained cardamom from southern India and Sri Lanka, and used it extensively in cookery and perfumes. Like pepper, cardamom was among the earliest spices mentioned in ancient Sanskrit (Indian) texts, where it appeared both as an ingredient of religious rituals and as a medicinal herb. Early Ayurvedic texts recommended the spice for skin and urinary problems, as well as an aid for digestion. In Arabic countries, stimulating cardamom has been considered an aphrodisiac.
Where to find:
• Cardamom Plants: Companion Plants, (740) 592-4643, www.CompanionPlants.com; Mountain Valley Growers, (559) 338-2775, www.MountainValleyGrowers.com.
• Cardamom Spice: Frontier Herbs, (800) 669-3275, www.FrontierCoop.com; Mountain Rose Herbs, (800) 879-3337, www.MountainRoseHerbs.com; Penzeys Spices, (800) 741-7787, www.penzeys.com; San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Co., (800) 227-2830, www.HerbSpiceTea.com.
William Woys Weaver is a food historian, author and contributing editor to Mother Earth News and Gourmet magazines. His classic, out-of-print book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Henry Holt & Co., 1997) is available on CD from Mother Earth News at www.HerbCompanion.com/shopping .