I Love Cardamom
In addition to being maybe the least well known spice, it has the happy distinction of being my unforgettable and exotic. I also have good taste. Cardamom is the third most expensive spice, right behind saffron and vanilla.
I’ve loved cardamom ever since I had an apfelstrudel. Yeah, the butter and the apples and the crispy crunch of perfect strudel dough, but beneath it all was the yet-to-be-identified flavor of ancientness. It was the cardamom.
Cardamom grows as ginger and turmeric grow, a rhizome root from another plant. The shoots reach 10-12 feet into the air, but the business is near the ground. Small white and purple flowers produce the fruit which is the cardamom pod. I’ve read than the seeds from the fresh fruit are much more powerful than the dried seeds.
Flavor is tricky to explain. Explain what blue looks like to someone who doesn’t see it. Indian cardamom has a sweetness which conceals a musty, piney, lemony aroma. Sri Lanka also produces a quality cardamom. As with many foods, imitations and poor substitutes are in the market. If you didn’t know (and now you do) cardamom from Guatemala is inferior in flavor and half the price. For that you get a camphor element which I find off-putting.
Cardamom once travelled by caravans for two years through desserts, on rivers, over mountains to China. Traders exchanged cardamom, cinnamon and other spices for their wants and needs and returned to India. The Chinese used what they wanted and then to parts east with the rest.
Cardamom is of course popular in Arab cuisine and coffee, where it may be ground with the coffee beans, added as seeds, or the whole pods steeped with the coffee. Cardamom pairs very nicely with turmeric, and those two alone make up the two most prominent ingredients in curry powder. It also pairs well with cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and mixes well in chicken and pork dishes, sweets such as streudel, cinnamon rolls or waffles. The connection with those last three is a degree of caramelized sugar. If you are a caramel making person, add some at the end of your caramel making. Trust me on this.
What To Look For
The best cardamom pods are blemish free, green, and tightly closed. The open as three leaves to reveal from 8 to 20 small black seeds. There are about 24 grades of cardamom and the best pods are about 8mm diameter. Interestingly, the grades are made on appearance and size only, never the seeds inside.
Cardamom pods can be white, but they are previously green pods which have been bleached with sulfer dioxide to conceal the fading green from a too old pod. Black cardamom isn’t really cardamom and hasn’t the refinement of proper cardamom. Make no mistake, proper cardamom has an elegance but packs a punch.
Cardamom, when found in a grocery store, will almost always be sold ground. Getting it is good, getting it in a pod is best. Once ground, the volatile flavors of cardamom dissipate rapidly. If that is all you can get, use more for any recipe since the delicate flavor is likely less than it could be. If you find them whole, smashing the seeds in a mortar and pestle is best. The bottom of a clean sauté pan or the back of a knife will work just fine. Seeds from a good quality pod will be a bit sticky. In India, the seeds are used as breath fresheners.
Not Just For Dessert
The cardamom pod offers other uses including a reduction in stomach pain and, it is said, the reduce flatulence. You are liking the caramel idea a lot more, aren’t you? Other uses may help with cancer, reduce cardiovascular issues, improve blood circulation and help manage UTI.
Cardamom will go very nicely in your Easter carrot cake. Add it to cinnamon rolls, mix your own curry powder, add it to tea, waffles from my friend Laura at Daily Improvisation, caramel sauce or, of course, nearly all Indian desserts.