This article was originally published in April 2005, and was so delicious we had to share it with you again.
by Donna Marie Desfor
Like any evocative indulgence, my first encounter with cardamom was strange and ethereal. Truth be told, I had probably experienced cardamom long before I knew it. Cardamom is like that.
Once you know its scent, though, you recognize it instantly. It becomes almost haunting: You dream of it; you desire it. Still, with its hefty price tag (third only to saffron and vanilla in the spice market) and its quick-to-fade aromatic (not to mention taste) quality, when I have it, I tend to hoard it.
Cardamom has the distinction of being one of the ancient spices. It is native to southern India, where it grows wild in the forests of the Western Ghats (a chain of mountains running from Bombay to the southern tip of India). Today it is cultivated in southern India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Indo China, and Tanzania, with Guatemala being the primary exporter. While it is true that the largest quantities of cardamom are grown in India, export is relatively small given the large demand for it domestically. It’s not hard to understand why, given its distinguished history.
Since ancient Egypt, cardamom has been used as a breath freshener and tooth cleaner, a perfume, a spice, and an aphrodisiac. It is a stimulant and carminative, but is used as a flavoring basis in medicinal preparations in Western cultures, rather than as a medicine itself. Most commonly, however, cardamom is found in culinary venues and celebrated for its pungent, warm, and aromatic qualities.
When you crush the oblong-shaped and coarse papery cardamom pod, releasing its heady fragrance, you discover rows of small brownish-black, sticky seeds. The intoxicating scent is at once lemony and camphorous. Unless you are purchasing this indulgent aroma for pure aromatic pleasures, steer clear of the ground stuff. It is sold in pods, loose seeds, or ground. I recommend purchasing cardamom pods, or at least the loose seeds, if there is any chance you will have some spice remaining after use.
Cardamom seeds lose their flavor quickly when ground; even if left whole, the seeds lose about 40% of their essential oils per year. Given the price tag (US$30+ per pound), it certainly is not worth risking the disappointment. If you’ve ever opened a spice container of cardamom longing for that stunning scent, only to discover a musty odor reminiscent of sawdust, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, save yourself the heartbreak. Stick to the pods, or buy ground cardamom in small quantities. (Purveyors that allow you to purchase your spices in small quantities to ensure freshness, peak flavor, and aroma are a treasure worth seeking.)
Cardamom pods are available in green or black, the black carrying a more eucalyptic flavor, which is worth dealing with in its own right. Green pods are significantly superior in fragrance to the yellow or white bleached ones, and the most common in our contemporary cuisine. Oddly enough, the largest export market of cardamom is comprised of the Arabic countries, where a substantial amount of the spice is used to prepare coffee (in summertime, some beverages can contain up to 80% cardamom). Considered a symbol of hospitality, the celebrated tradition of strongly brewed coffee with cardamom thrives even today.
However, for more contemporary culinary preparations, as elusive as this spice is, it can be found frequently in everything from breads, to pastry dough, to sauces and desserts, to marinades and rubs. Cardamom can revive tired spice cakes and biscuits, and is an impressive complement to gingerbread (after all, it has its roots in the ginger family). Scandinavian cuisine is famous for its liberal use of cardamom — mostly as a substitution for cinnamon.
Simmered in soups or meaty broths, a few crushed pods brighten the flavors and heighten the aromas. Cardamom is especially compelling when added to a bouquet garni. And, much like a vanilla bean, the pods can perfume sugar with a subtle warmth that is addictive when sprinkled over summer fruits and berries.
For such an intriguing aromatic, I found it quite odd that cardamom was so little known and so little used. But a quick trip through my personal library revealed what I guess I had secretly known: It’s not elusive at all. No. In fact, it is used frequently albeit in a subtle, but noticeable, supporting role. My research produced plenty of cardamom recipes and all sorts of manners in which to use it. The internet proved to be another reliable source for a bevy of recipes, though I cannot say I trust all the preparations I encountered. Nevertheless, whatever it is you want to cook, somewhere along the way someone’s done it with cardamom. Its mystique was gone. And truth be told, I found that rather disappointing. Cardamom is more than that.
The aroma from a crushed pod can be surprising. Like a new lover, it distracts your mind and its perfume seduces your senses from all reason. After you’ve had it, you remember it — you can taste it in your mind. You begin to crave it, and it becomes addictive, like a powerful infatuation.
In the end, our Test Kitchen offers some subtle but sublime infusions of cardamom — in its most elemental form, and in its most competitive. Each recipe invites you into the heady realms of gastronomic pleasure by surrounding you with the fragrances and flavors of this alluring, ethereal spice. It is something quite out of this world — an indulgence that is truly Heaven’s scent.
Top photo: Kelly Cline
Bottom photo: Donna Marie Desfor
Donna Marie Desfor is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.