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Herbs Section

Cardamom - Queen of spices

"The Queen of Spices" was the title the Silk Road traders gave to Cardamom. The apple green pods give little hint of the treasure inside: the fragrant sticky black seeds give of a rich cedar/pine/peppery/lemon fragrance that seems to enhance both savoury and sweet dishes alike.

Cardamom seeds and pods

Cardamom seeds and pods

 

The name suits both cardamom’s regal price and its alluring aroma. Few spices cost so much but few have such a complex bouquet, simultaneously floral and camphorous, smooth yet pungent, sweet and warm yet clean and refreshing. I sneak about a 12 to 20 seeds into my mortar and pestle when I grind cinnamon for a rice pudding. I also do the same for Thai and Malaysian stir fry dishes too. It gives that lift that you can't quite identify but leave it out and the whole dish is just not quite as good.

India grows and exports most of the world’s meagre 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, which are very similar to Ginger 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!).

In Guatemala the fluctuating and often declining coffee prices have meant that some farmers are turning to other incomes. Because coffee prices have been so poor some farmers also raise Cardamom, mostly for export to the middle east where it fetches higher and more stable prices. (Cardamom is ground with coffee in making Ibrik or Turkish coffee).

Cardamom pods forming at base of flowers

Cardamom pods forming at the base of the flowers.

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 (Sulphur bleached) 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 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 semi-cleared jungle plots or on plantations inter-cropped with coffee trees, tea shrubs, betel palms, or black pepper vines.

Cardamom plants
Cardamom plants

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.

The reason for Cardamom's high price is not just the crops low yield. Cardamom production, like that of saffron and vanilla, involves extensive hand labour. All cultivation is done manually, and pickers harvest the pods one at a time with scissors. Because the pods on a stalk ripen at different times, the labourers must examine each plant frequently to catch the pods at their peak, just before they ripen and split.

Cardamom flowers and seed pods forming
Cardamom flowers with pods forming

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 flavour loss, the processors pack the pods in waterproof lined wooden boxes or tins.

Cardamom substitutes

Nearly all of the “false” cardamoms are harvested from plants grown in the wild. Most of these have a harsher, camphorous flavour, more akin to medicine than food, yet several play a significant role in regional cuisines.

The smoky, camphorous flavour of the large black cardamom pods (Amomum subulatum) make them ideal seasonings for savory curries and pilafs but far too harsh for sweets. In the past, unscrupulous spice purveyors adulterated “true” cardamom with this spice.

The various forms of Cardamom seeds and pods.

Black, white and green cardamom pods with seed.

Ethiopian false cardamom (Aframomum korarima) is native to that country (where it’s called kewrerima) and still grown principally in the southwestern provinces of Gemu Gofa and Keffa. The seeds from its large brown pods taste too sharp to use in sweet dishes but make a perfect spice in this Ethopian fiery Berber cuisine.

 Apothecary Bottles

Historical and Medicinal Use

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.

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's not clear whether these were what we now consider true cardamom because they were characterized as being bitter, a description that does not 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.

Chinese round cardamom (A. globosum) is native to China and is used there as a medicine rather than as a spice. To taste it is to know why. Its flavor is dominated by the overwhelmingly camphorous taste of bornyl acetate.

Round or Java cardamom (Amomum compactum, formerly A. cardamomum) is still used as a seasoning in its native Indonesian region and has since antiquity, but little if any now enters the spice trade. The seeds and leaves (which are also used as a flavoring) have a harsh, turpentine aroma.

Alpinia zerumbet and A. malaccensis are closely ­related plants with spectacular flowers and aromatic foliage. Both plants are used for their leaves, more than their seeds, to season rice and other foods in parts of Southeast Asia. A distillate of A. malaccensis leaves is called essence of Amali (or Mali).

Cardamom seeds

Cardamom's unique aroma comes entirely from it's seeds.

Cardamom’s seeds are the source of its luscious flavour. 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.

Both the Chinese and Indians have recognized cardamom's ability to aid digestion and give a fresh breath 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.

Culinary Uses

If you are lucky enough to have access to a cardamom plant, the leaves also have a cinnamon fragrance and are ideal for wrapping small parcels of meat and rice for steaming. These are best wrapped and steamed the day before use, stored in the refrigerator over night and re-warmed up in a steamer just prior to serving. The mild cinnamon-pine flavour will permeate the contents adding a subtle aroma - perfect for coconut rice.

For most Westerners, cardamom’s flavour comes from the seeds, which quickly lose their fragrance once exposed to air after the pods have been split open. Grinding the seeds rapidly accelerates the flavour 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 measure of the seeds within, losing their aroma. Unfortunately, the bleached pods do not offer any such indication. If you are not using a lot of this spice, do not buy it ready ground.


Dessert apple yoghurt with cardamom
Cardamom is an ideal complimentary dessert spice to bring out the flavour in fruits like in this dessert - apple yoghurt with cardamom.

Aquavit

Aquavit - liquor of spices

Renowned for it's unique aromatic spicy flavour, aquavit is an infused liquor best taken as a chilled shot straight from the bottle. Rather than pay a fortune, why not make your own?

INGREDIENTS
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 cardamom pods, crushed
2 whole cloves
1 medium lemon, rinsed and dried
1 medium orange, rinsed and dried
1 (750-millilitre) bottle vodka
1 teaspoon granulated sugar

INSTRUCTIONS
Toast the caraway, fennel, cardamom, and cloves in a small frying pan over medium heat, shaking occasionally until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Using a fine grater, remove half of the peel from both the lemon and orange but do not grate the pith.

Remove about 2 tablespoons of the vodka from the bottle. Either drink it or discard it.

Place the toasted spices, lemon and orange peels, and sugar into the bottle. Cover tightly.

Let the vodka infuse at room temperature (choose a spot that is neither too warm nor too cold) for 2 weeks, turning and gently shaking the bottle once a day. After 2 weeks, taste the aquavit. If not aromatic enough, let it stand longer as needed.
Strain the aquavit through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids. Transfer your aquavit to a clean bottle with a tight fitting lid and store it in the fridge.

 

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

For the best-quality cardamom, buy whole unopened pods. choose plump, dense, uncracked pods with a bright, parrot green colour 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/sticky , in a mortar or clean coffee mill.

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.

Three regions of the world consume nearly all of the world’s cardamom. In the Middle East, cardamom is used primarily to flavour 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 flavour 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 or spiced wine. (I have included a recipe to make your own aquavit on the left.)

In India, true cardamom is an ingredient of most garam masala spice blends and is used to flavour sweets, chai (hot tea), and some savoury dishes such as pilaf, dhal, and curries. Many Indian cooks favour 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 flavouring 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.

Black Cardamom

Black cardamom has a fresh and aromatic aroma in which camphor is easily discernible. By virtue of the traditional drying procedure over open flames, the spice also acquires a strong smoky flavour. Black cardamom is usually described as an inferior substitute for green cardamom, but this can be seriously challenged. In India, black cardamom has its special field of application and although green and black cardamoms are frequently interchangeable, the black variety is felt superior for spicy and rustic dishes, while green cardamom is much preferred in the Mogul cuisine with its subtle blend of sweet fragrances.

Black Cardamom leaves

Black Cardamom leaves

Black cardamom can be used in rather liberal amounts, up to a few capsules per person. The smoky fragrance of the pure spice is not discernible in the finished dish. Black cardamom cannot dominate a dish, but enhances and intensifies the taste of other ingredients.

The pods should be slightly crushed before use, but not so much that the seeds are released although these may be removed before serving (especially from soups). Black cardamom, as other spices used in North India, needs some cooking time to best develop its aroma. Thus, it is generally a good idea to prepare North Indian braised dishes (kormas) a few hours or even a day in advance.

Although there are many distinct species of black cardamom ranging in pod size from 2 cm to more than 5 cm, their tastes do not differ much, although only the Nepal variety is smoked. Apart from use in Indian and Nepali cuisine they are not much known, but have some importance in Central and Southern China where the ground seeds are an optional ingredient of Chinese five spice.

In the mountains of Sichuan in central China, black cardamom is commonly employed in long- simmered meat stews together with other dried spices. The term xiang liao "fragrant grains" refers to such mixtures of dried spices which are prepared differently for each recipe and typically contain Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, black cardamom, star anise and lesser galangale.

There are also some related wild African black cardamoms (aframomum) found in Madagascar, Somalia and Cameroon.

Black cardamom should be distinguished from the pungent West African spice "grains of paradise", which have a similar taste and appear sporadically on the Western market.

Growing Cardamom

In theory, you can grow cardamom plants in the hottest regions of the United States and Australia. 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 labelled “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.

Black Cardamom flowers

Black Cardamom flowers

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, after about 6 years, the plants will send up panicles of flamboyant flowers that develop into fuzzy green cardamom like pods. 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 house plant 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 house plant fertilizer. As plants grow, remove dried leaves and transplant to larger pots as necessary.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple


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