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Cardamom - An Exotic Spice

 

by Joan Russell, Freelance Food Writer The Smorgasbord

See also: Cardamom Field Report;
Cardamom Trivia

Cardamom is a distinctively pungent aromatic spice that is part of many different world cuisines.  It is the second most expensive spice only saffron costs more. It is used in curry  powder, rice, meat, and dessert dishes. The tasted is described as similar to ginger but with a pinch of pine or having an anise flavor.

Botanical Description
Cardamom (Elletaria Cardamomum) is a member of the Zingiberaceae or ginger family. It is a perennial with tall simple canes or stems that grow out of rhizomes. It is native to the shady forests of India, Ceylon and Malaysia. Today it is cultivated mainly in Guatemala and India

The flower spikes produce white or pale green flowers that produce green pod capsules that contain 10 to 20 seeds. These seeds are small black and sticky. The best quality cardamom seeds are ripe, hard and dark brown in color. It is difficult to grow and must be hand picked which is why it is one of the most expensive spices.

A Brief History
Cardamom was used for medicinal purposes. Cleopatra is said to have found the scent so enticing that she had the palace scented with cardamom smoke when Marc Anthony came to visit. Ancient Greeks and Romans used cardamom in foods as well as for Medicines and perfumes. In the New Testament which was largely written in Greek “amooman” appears in reference to the aromatic plant cardamom. The word means blameless without reproach.

Propagating and Growing Cardamom
Because cardamom is a spice of the tropics it requires abundant rainfall and a mean Temperature of 72º F (22ºC).  A cardamom plantation is begun be clearing a site leaving a few trees for shade. The rhizomes are planted among the trees sending up 6 to 8 foot leafy shoots which give the plant a bushy appearance. When mature the plants send up flower spikes that produce the green cardamom capsules. It takes up to four years to obtain a full cardamom crop from such a planting.

Harvesting and Storing
Harvesting time is important to quality and yield. The pods are handpicked when still green but just as the seeds are turning green. Once harvested the pods are dried in the sun or a kiln.

Cardamom is available in three forms. The most useful is pods of which green and white can be found. Inside of each pod are about 20 small black sticky seeds. You can either bruise them and toss them into your pot or peel the skin off and use the seeds whole or ground. If you cannot find whole pods use the ground cardamom available in grocery stores. As with all herbs store in a cool dry place to prevent the oils in the seeds from evaporating. Pods will retain their aroma for one year.

White cardamom is green cardamom that has been chemically bleached. Avoid using white pods as bleaching can remove flavor and aroma.

Using Cardamom in Foods
East Indian, Scandinavian, Arabic and Central African cuisines use cardamom frequently.

It is an essential ingredient in Arabic coffee. The freshly ground seeds are added to the coffee or a few pods are put in the coffeepot. Arabic nomads sometimes own coffeepots that can keep several cardamom capsules in their spouts. It was often traditional to show guests cardamom pods before serving coffee as a sign of respect and esteem. Arabs also use cardamom in meat and rice dishes with other spices.

It is a popular spice in Northern and Eastern Africa. It is used in the Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout. Scandinavian countries use cardamom for cookies and sweetbreads. Curry contains small amounts of cardamom. It is often used to flavor tea.

Cardamom seeds lose their flavor quickly when ground so buy whole whenever possible.

Green pods are superior to white pods for flavor. Green cardamom has a subtle to sweet fragrance.

You may also see black or brown cardamom in Asian food store. This is either Nepal cardamom or Chinese cardamom. Neither of these is true cardamom nor both are considered inferior to flavor of green cardamom.  The black is used more for spicy or rustic or spicy dishes. Black cardamom takes time to develop aroma.

Sources:
“The Rodale Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs”, The Rodale Press Emmaus, PA
Rita Buchanan, Editor, “Taylor’s Guide to Herbs,” Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995
“Spice Notes” Frontier Natural Food Coop. 1996-2000
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages - www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl
 

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