Like tiny Christmas boxes, cardamom’s apple green husks hint at a treasure inside–the fragrant seeds that Indians call “the queen of spices”. The name suits both cardamom’s regal price and its alluring aroma. Few spices cost so much. Few have such a complex bouquet, one that is simultaneously floral and camphorous, smooth yet pungent, sweet and warm yet clean and refreshing.
Unfortunately, cardamom’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, celebrative 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 cardamom’s 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 think of cardamom 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. See page 34 for more about these plants.
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 is 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 semicleared jungle plots or on plantations intercropped with coffee trees, tea shrubs, betel palms, or black pepper vines.
In the wild, the plants spread by rhizomes or self-sown seeds. Commercial propagation is from freshly harvested seeds or by rhizome division. The plants’ first delicate white and purple-veined flowers appear about five years after planting or sowing. Bees pollinate the flowers, and the resulting fruit, or pod, matures over the next several months. The plants continue to bloom every spring or summer for the next ten to fifteen years, but then they degenerate and must be replaced with fresh plants.
A Limited Crop
India grows and exports most of the world’s meager cardamom crop. Since cardamom’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, cardamom plants yield only a tiny crop of pods and seeds, generally 40 to 120 pounds per cultivated acre. This explains in part why cardamom, 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!)
Cardamom 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.
Cardamom’s seeds are the source of its luscious flavor. Two constituents predominate: 1,8-cineole (with a warm, eucalyptic, clean, and faintly camphorous aroma) and alpha-terpinyl acetate (with a freshly floral scent). A number of other terpenes add subtle notes to the bouquet. The husk, by contrast, contains only edible but tasteless, scentless crude fiber.
Cardamom’s seductive flavor is fleeting, particularly after the pods have been split open, exposing the seeds to air. Grinding just accelerates the flavor loss. Although the seeds in freshly dried green and bleached white pods have the same taste, fading of the green pods as they age acts as a benchmark of their concomitant fading fragrance. Unfortunately, the bleached pods offer no such clues. For the best-quality cardamom, buy whole pods: choose plump, dense, uncracked pods with a bright, parrot green color and store them in an airtight jar in the refrigerator or freezer. Just before using, peel the pods (insert your thumbnails in the obvious longitudinal marks or set them on a chopping board and gently hammer them with a rolling pin), discard the husks, and grind the seeds, which are soft and oily, in a mortar or clean coffee mill.
Folk Cures and Lore
Cardamom 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 cardamom will lead to impotence. Perhaps the effects cancel each other in those who notice neither effect.
A more widely held belief is that cardamom will give your mouth a fresh, clean taste. Both the Chinese and Indians have recognized this for hundreds or–more likely–thousands of years. Even today, cardamom 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.
Historic Use For Cardamom
Cardamom is believed to have originated in the Western Ghats of southern India. One suspects that people in this district have known and used it since ancient times; however, the earliest Indian record occurs in the Susruta Samhita, written about a.d. 600.
Earlier references to amomum and kardamomom occur in both Greek and Roman writings (including a comment in Apicius’s cookbook that cardamom aided digestion when one had overindulged), but it isn’t clear whether these were what we now consider true cardamom because they were characterized as being bitter, a description that doesn’t apply to E. cardamomum. They might even have been unrelated plants. A millennium later, medieval cookery manuscripts demonstrate cardamom’s unequivocal European presence and popularity.
The Chinese have also used cardamoms of one sort or another since antiquity. Records mention that cardamom (probably E. cardamomum) was sent as a tribute to the imperial court in the third century. The native Chinese wild (false) cardamom species likely were in use thousands of years earlier.
In The Garden
In theory, you can grow cardamom plants in the hottest regions of the United States. Unfortunately, you can’t just plant seeds from the grocery store as they are no longer viable. You can purchase rhizome divisions from many nurseries, but although the plants are labeled “cardamom”, their rare blossoms–brilliant crimson and yellow-throated–suggest that they may actually be species of Alpinia or Aframomum rather than E. cardamomum, whose flowers are white-and-violet.
No matter what their true identity and even though the plants aren’t likely to produce much, if any, of the ethereal spice, their cinnamon/cardamom-scented leaves and vigorous growth make them a first-class addition to any herb gardener’s plot. In the Sun Belt, you can grow them outdoors. Over the years, if left undisturbed, they will spread to become stately, 6-foot-tall clumps. With luck, the plants will send up panicles of flamboyant flowers that develop into fuzzy green cardamomlike pods. In my former Tucson garden, the first flowers appeared six years after planting. You can divide your plants in the spring, but the offsets won’t flower for at least five or six years.
In colder climates, you can grow cardamom plants indoors or in a greenhouse. While they may not flower or grow quite so lustily, they will live for years. What could be nicer than a houseplant that exudes a cinnamon scent when you brush its leaves?
Set outdoor plants in rich, well-drained soil in a shaded location protected from frost. Fertilize with composted manure two or three times during the spring and summer until September, then hold back until the next spring. Water frequently. If the leaves droop or brown, water more often. When growing plants indoors, transplant the small nursery specimens to gallon pots filled with sterile potting soil. Water frequently enough to prevent drooping or yellowed leaves. Place near a window with filtered light. Fertilize them once a month with liquid houseplant fertilizer. As plants grow, remove dried leaves and transplant to larger pots as necessary.
In The Kitchen
Three regions of the world consume nearly all of the world’s cardamom. In the Middle East, cardamom is used primarily to flavor sweets and coffee. In fact, nearly half of the world’s total cardamom export is consumed in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in spiced gahwa (coffee)!
In Scandinavia, cardamom is 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, true cardamom is an ingredient of most garam masala spice blends and flavors sweets, chai (hot tea), and some savory dishes such as pilaf, dhal, and curries. Many Indian cooks favor the “false” black pods in their pilafs, adding them whole and removing them just before serving like a bouquet garni.
While Moroccans use less cardamom than the Big Three consumers, they often include it in the elaborate spice blend ras al hanout. Some recipes even call for three forms: green pods, the “false” black pods, and grains of paradise.
Cardamom’s potential is much broader. It is 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 first-class 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.
Many supermarkets carry ground cardamom, and some carry the whole white pods. Most natural-food stores that sell bulk spices carry the ground spice, decorticated (husked) seeds, and sometimes whole pods. Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and Indian grocery stores usually stock ground cardamom, green pods, and sometimes black pods; the first also may carry Ethiopian cardamom. Cardamom is also available by mail order.
Penzeys’, Ltd. Spice House, PO Box 1448, Waukesha, WI 53187. Cardamom pods (green, white, black), decorticated seeds, and ground. Catalog free.
Frontier Herbs, PO Box 299, Norway, IA 52318. Cardamom pods (green and white), decorticated seed, and ground; grains of paradise seeds. Catalog free.
Near East Foods, 4595 El Cajon Blvd.,
San Diego, CA 92115. (619) 284-6361. Cardamom pods (green, black, and Ethiopian) and ground. Call for prices.
Rafal Spice Co., 2521 Russell, Detroit, MI 48207. Cardamom pods (green and white), decorticated seeds, ground. Catalog free.
Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $3.
It’s About Thyme, 11726 Manchaca Rd., Austin, TX 78748. Catalog free.
Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3.
Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free.
Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.
Cornelia Carlson exercises her passion for growing tropical spices in her San Diego-area home. She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is the author of The Practically Meatless Gourmet (Prima, 1996).