Like so many of the spices we use today, cardamom has been used in food and medicine around the world for millennia. The Roman collection of recipes, the Apicius, compiled in the 4th or 5th century C.E., recommends cardamom as a aid in digestion after heavy meals, and as a cure for overindulgence after heavy drinking, and we know the Ancient Romans did plenty of that, so they must have known what they were talking about.
WHERE IS IT FROM?
Called the ‘queen of spices’, cardamom is the third priciest spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla, mainly because it is all hand picked. There are two main types of cardamom, true, green, or ‘lesser’ cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum, and false, black, or ‘greater’ cardamom, Amomum subulatum, both originally native to parts of India and Sri Lanka. There are various grades of green cardamom, depending on where it is grown. The strains of green cardamom are grown in India, Thailand and Indonesia, and the black is cultivated in India, Madagascar, Nepal, and West Africa.
The cardamom of commerce is the dried fruit capsule of the cardamom plant. The seedpods can be used whole or crushed, the seeds also used whole or crushed. True cardamom are green or white depending on the drying process, and are smaller and more aromatic than the black pods. The green pods and seeds have a sweeter, citrusy flavour, and the black have a more smokey taste.
From archaeological evidence we know that cardamom was used in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as the third millennium B.C.E. To them the sweet smell of spices was a sign of purity, and it was used to flavour food and as an ingredient in perfumes. Sanskrit texts from c.3000 B.C.E. mention cardamom as one of the spices to be poured onto the sacrificial fire during wedding ceremonies.
Vikings from Northern Europe, who encountered the spice through traders passing through Constantinople, brought the sweet green pods to Scandinavia where it remains a key ingredient in Danish pastries and many other Scandinavian dishes.
4th century C.E. Chinese botanist, Ji Han, recounts that cardamom will clear wind and dissolve phlegm. Black cardamom smells of camphor and eucalyptus, so it is not surprising that it was recommended for breathing and lung problems in traditional medicine. It was also said to be an aphrodisiac. It is still used in traditional medicine to settle the stomach and prevent nausea, and the pods are chewed as a breath freshener and to clear the sinuses.
These days it is still used to help with digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome. There have been studies to determine cardamom’s effects on sufferers of Type 2 diabetes, and while it does seem to have beneficial effects on levels of cholesterol, the jury is still out on its other benefits.
Half of all the cardamom currently produced each year is used to flavour Arabic coffees. Green cardamom is widely used in Indian cooking, both in savory dishes and also added to sweets, custards and ice creams, and what a great flavour it is. Whole green cardamom is an important ingredient in spiced chai masala, a hot tea consumed all over India.
The false or black cardamom pods are also used in curries, pilafs and other dishes in India. Usually the whole pod is added to bring out all the flavours, just remember to remove it before serving. In Europe it’s not that widely used, except for in Scandinavia where green cardamom is used in place of cinnamon in many sweet pastries, cakes, cookies, and a hot spiced wine, glogg.
If you want to use ground cardamom, you should grind it yourself, as it has short shelf life, and loses its potency quite quickly.
To get a taste for cardamom yourself, have a go at these recipes: