Cardamom is the seed of a perennial plant called Elettaria cardamomum which belongs to the family Zingiberaceae (ginger family). One of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron, it has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for millennia and is currently used in many cuisines the world over in both it’s natural and ground forms.
Origin and history of Cardamom
Cardamom is the seed of a perennial plant known as Elettaria cardamomum which belongs to the family Zingiberaceae (ginger family). One of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron, it has been used for medicinal, spiritual and culinary purposes for millennia and is currently used in many cuisines the world over.
Although native to India, in particular growing wild on the Malabar Coast in the south, the peoples of Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, and China have been aware of the benefits cardamom both as a medicinal constituent and for culinary purposes as well as in spiritual rituals for over 5000 years. It was grown in the garden of the king of Babylon c. 721 B.C. and mention of it as being a spice liable to duty in Alexandria appears in lists dated 176-180AD.
Alexander the Great’s soldiers introduced it to Europe upon returning from India around 325BC and the ancient Romans and Greeks not only used it in food and for medicinal purposes, but also in perfumes. Indeed, it is said that Cleopatra had her palace perfumed with Cardamom for Mark Anthony’s visits.
The Normans first introduced cardamom into England in the 11th century however it wasn’t until the 17th century that cardamom was imported to Europe on a regular basis with the advent of easier trade routes by sea, set up by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, rather than the laborious over-land routes
Cultivation and processing Cardamom
The Cardamom plant is a bushy perennial which grows up to 3m. They are found growing in the wild mainly in forests situated between 800 and 1500 metres above sea level and require hot humid conditions. Today, cardamom is cultivated, not only in India but also places like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Central America, Mexico and Thailand. They can be grown from seed or vegetatively, using portions of the plant’s rhizomes and when cultivated are grown in open fields or forests.
Harvesting can start in the plant’s third year and is generally done when the fruit is 2/3rds ripe and still green. The pods which contain around 20 seeds are hand picked and then dried, traditionally in the sun but nowadays sometimes mechanically, after which they are sorted and graded. Pods which don’t have the uniform green colour are often bleached using bleaching powder, sulphur dioxide or hydrogen peroxide however this results in a loss of flavour.
Any pods which are left to ripen more, thus losing their green colour can also be harvested, however these tend to burst open more readily resulting, in a loss of essential oils and are therefore, once again, less flavoursome. Once the sorting has taken place, they are either used whole or ground.
Buying and storing Cardamom
If possible, buy the whole seeds and grind them yourself as needed. Apart from the fact that some bought ground cardamom is mixed with other ingredients to bring down the cost, once ground, Cardamom loses its aroma and flavour much more quickly. Choose the greener ones as these have the best flavour .
As with most other spices, both whole and ground cardamom should be stored in an airtight container. Cardamom pods will last for many months.
Cardamom in cooking
Cardamom has a strong, aromatic odour yet a delicate, spicy flavour. It is used in many cuisines worldwide in both sweet and savoury dishes.
In India and surrounding countries it is a popular ingredient in curries and meat dishes. In Europe, it is traditionally associated with Festive seasons (probably due to its high price) and today is used as an ingredient in breads, pastries (particularly in Scandinavian countries) as well as some desserts, much like cinnamon. In Russia and Germany it has been used to flavour liqueurs for over 500 years. It is also sometimes used in meat, poultry and shellfish dishes as well as in mulled wines and pickles. With all that said possibly the largest consumers of Cardamom are Middle Easterners (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Turkey) where they use it to flavour coffee…big time!
When a recipe calls for whole cardamom, crack the pod slightly before adding them to the dish to extract the full flavour.