Cardamom, the dried fruit/seeds of a large plant native to south India, is one of the top three most expensive spices in the world (saffron and vanilla rank with it). A member of the ginger family, cardamom can be traced as far back as the 4th century – historical documents show it was utilized by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, and Scandinavians, and it makes appearances in famous written tomes like The Bible and The Arabian Nights. The spice has been used as a form of bartered currency in India for centuries, and now is cultivated in roughly a half dozen exotic locations across the globe.
Cardamom is the small, deep-brown fruit seeds of the Elettaria cardamomum, a fairly large tropical bush native to warm, damp climates. The plant’s durable stems, which house seed pods near ground level, can reach up to fifteen feet in height. Its leaves are bright green and roughly 1-2 feet long, and are accented by distinctive white flowers with purple veins. Cardamom is not easily grown or cultivated outside of tropical climates, and even then the growing process can be somewhat complicated when it comes to maintaining the bush for culinary purposes – spacing of the plants and competition with other plant-life must be taken into account.
Cardamom seeds grow in dark green or brown almond or ovular shaped pods, which are roughly ¼”- ¾” of an inch in length and have a tough, wrinkled, papery surface. The seeds themselves are very small with a deep brown hue and a mildly sticky outside. Good, or “true”, cardamom pods should be a green color after drying (unless they bleached before selling, which is not uncommon); brown and black pods usually come from the many “bastard cardamoms” on the market, which are closely related to their “true” counterpart but remain somewhat inferior in taste and aroma. “Bastard” or “false” cardamoms are listed as:
- Java cardamom (Amomum compactum), aka Siam cardamom
- Chinese cardamom (Alpinia globosa)
- Thai cardamom (Amomum xanthioides)
- Ethiopian cardamom (Aframomum korarima), aka Korarima cardamom
- Madagascar cardamom (Aframomum angustifolium)
- Nepalese cardamom
Confused yet? To put it simply these spices, which are all dark in color, do offer some culinary benefits and share traits with true cardamom, but are no substitution for the real thing. The only true cardamoms are E. cardamomum var and E. cardamomum var major. They have green pods, dark seeds, and a warm, pungent aroma with hints of eucalyptus. The essence of eucalyptus is more obvious in the actual flavor of the spice, and is accompanied by notes of lemon and camphor.
Most closely associated with Indian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian cuisine, cardamom has had many uses throughout its long life. Its enticing aroma was said to have been used as perfume by the Greeks and Romans, while the Egyptians used it to freshen breath. The spice is more commonly used in the complex curry and masala dishes of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as in signature dishes like pulses. Scandinavian cookery uses it in baked goods such as pastries and breads, while Turkish and Arabic cuisines throw it in with pilafs and other flavorful rice dishes. The spice adds dimension to pickles, and to a surprising array of beverages including Russian liqueurs, various mulled wines and punches, Indian and Moroccan sweet drinks, and Arabic coffee. Cardamom blends very well with other spices and is therefore found in numerous spice blends, including Moroccan ras el hanout (cardamom, cassia, mace, clove, cumin, rose petals, etc.), Middle Eastern zhug (cumin, cardamom, garlic, chilli), and Indian garam masala (cumin, coriander, cardamom, pepper, clove, mace, cinnamon, etc.).
Use and Storage
Cardamom can be purchased in the pod (either whole or split), as loose seeds, or ground into a fine powder. The spice is most potent when taken from the pod and ground directly before use; ground cardamom loses its flavor quickly, and the powdered variety available at most mainstream supermarkets is considered significantly less potent than fresh ground. Try to keep pods whole before for using to preserve their flavor and aroma.
Indian cuisine occasionally uses the whole cardamom pods, which are split and added to hearty dishes; the pods are then removed before the dish is served. More commonly the seeds are extracted from the pod and bruised, crushed, fried, or roasted in a pan before adding additional spices and ingredients. Seeds can also be ground by hand on a hard stone with other spices to make spice blends for curries.
Use It (How to/where)
- In exotic coffee drinks
- In spice blends like garam masala for curries
- In potent spice rubs for grilled lamb or chicken kebabs
- In rice pilaf
- To season Indian favorites like Tandoori Chicken or Chicken Vindaloo
- In simple cookies or cakes
- To add an exotic kick to chocolate or coffee flavored icing
- In small amounts to flavor apricot or grape jellies
Recipes using Cardamom
Exotic Cardamom infused Arabic Coffee (makes four cups)
5 level tablespoons fresh ground coffee (not from a can; get fresh beans from your local specialty store)
3 ¾ cups filtered or bottled water
Small pinch salt
Several green cardamom pods (3-4 to start), split
*alternative: 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 egg white (optional)
pinch cinnamon (optional)
Combine water, salt, and coffee in a soup pot. Stir in egg white. Add cardamom pods, slightly split. Bring pot to boil. Turn down heat and let mixture simmer for 12-15 minutes, depending on desired strength of coffee. Pull pot off heat and add one cup chilled water. Strain into coffee pot. Serve immediately with milk and sugar.
Cardamom Scented Citrus Salad
4 ripe mandarin oranges, peeled and sectioned
1 sweet grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
1 navel or blood orange, peeled and sectioned
1 green, black, or citrus infused tea bag
1-1 ½ teaspoons ground cardamom
1/3 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
Pinch cinnamon (optional)
Brew one cup of tea and set aside to cool. Combine fruit in a bowl and toss to mix. Stir cinnamon into tea (it may not dissolve completely) and pour over citrus. Sprinkle tea/citrus mix with cardamom. Let chill for at least thirty minutes before serving. Spoon citrus into small individual bowls. Garnish with chopped mint. Sprinkle with a pinch more cardamom right before serving if necessary.