Captivating cardamom

cardamom pods

Do you remember the first time you tasted cardamom? Perhaps it occurred when you nibbled on Swedish meatballs or drank masala chai. Mysterious yet approachable, cardamom contains notes of cinnamon and nutmeg coupled with an intense aroma and spicy undertone that some describe as camphoric. Hailing from the Indian peninsula, cardamom is used there (and in the Middle East) to flavor coffee and tea, plus it is found in many curries and desserts including baklava. Cardamom found its way to Scandinavia where it was eagerly appropriated and now graces dishes both savory and sweet, including the Finnish sweet bread pulla, the pre-Lenten treat semlor, and last but not least, the afore-mentioned Swedish meatballs.

Cardamom is a member of the ginger family, with two main branches that produce green cardamom, the one with which Westerners are most familiar, and its cousin black cardamom, which boasts smoky undertones in addition to the characteristic spice notes. Some bakers express a preference for white cardamom, but they may be surprised to learn that white cardamom is nothing more than green cardamom that has been bleached with sulphur dioxide.

The story behind white cardamom is one of technology replicating an obsolete process. When cardamom was first exported to ports far from its native lands, the poor storage conditions on the ships would expose the pods to sun, salt, and air, causing the color (and flavor) to fade. (Call me cynical, but I also suspect that since cardamom is graded on color, the less desirable lighter-colored pods were marked for export, giving those pods a head start on the bleaching process.) Old habits die hard, so now cardamom is artificially bleached to meet consumer expectations. You may substitute green for white cardamom in any recipe.

The outer shells of cardamom pods have little flavor; the intense taste is found in the tiny inner seeds. Properly stored, cardamom pods will stay fresh indefinitely. Shelled (decorticated) cardamom seeds are less expensive but don't keep as well. Ground cardamom is easy to use in baking applications, but as with most ground spices, its flavor diminishes quickly. Cardamom is one of the world's most expensive spices, ranking just behind saffron and vanilla, sharing their persnickety growing conditions and laborious hand-harvesting requirements. Even though cardamom is native to the Indian subcontinent, Guatemala now ranks as the world's largest producer of the spice. If you are low on cardamom you may want to stock up; cardamom futures are up amidst strong demand.

Here are five of the most popular recipes using cardamom from the EYB library:

Roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime and green chilli
Orange-cardamom ice cream
Cashew chicken with a cilantro sauce (Dhania murghi)
Green lentil soup with coconut milk and warm spices
Cardamom chicken with yoghurt and onions

What's your favorite recipe containing cardamom?  

Photo by Darcie Boschee

7 Comments

  • hillsboroks  on  3/11/2014 at 6:04 PM

    What fascinating spice story! I always wondered why the Scandinavians ended up with a spice like cardamom in their cuisine that seemed to have skipped over the rest of Europe. Personally I started playing around with cardamom a couple of years ago, especially in the summer when making fruit pies like apple, peach and pear. I love the way people react when they realize it isn't the same old cinnamon in the pie but can't quite figure out what spice it is and why it tastes so good. I am going home tonight and making a batch of the Green Lentil soup to have for when my daughter comes for a visit tomorrow night. It sounds wonderful.

  • darcie_b  on  3/11/2014 at 6:15 PM

    From what I could glean, the Vikings discovered cardamom when they got down to Constantinople (Istanbul) and then brought it back home. Since cardamom is fat soluble it worked well in the Scandinavian cuisine that had a lot of dairy fats in it.

  • wester  on  3/12/2014 at 1:44 AM

    I often make rice pudding with cardamom and rose water (or orange blossom water). The family loves it.

  • FuzzyChef  on  3/12/2014 at 2:05 AM

    Darcie, that still doesn't explain "why cardamom?", since it's originally from India and would have been an import into Persia as well. Vikings would have been equally if not more exposed to saffron, cloves, and rose water, but none of those had the impact on them that cardamom did. It also doesn't explain why cardamom never caught on in Russia, which is after all where those particular Vikings (the Rus) would have been coming from. I know you don't have an answer for that -- nobody does. I'm just interested in the mystery. Sadly, cardamom prices have *already* soared.

  • darcie_b  on  3/12/2014 at 10:14 AM

    I think that the fat solubility helped - but you could ask the question about why any spice catches on in a particular location once it's brought back. "People liked it" is probably the answer ;)

  • Queezle_Sister  on  3/12/2014 at 3:35 PM

    A year of my childhood was spent in Norway, and my mother started to prepare breads with cardomom. I love using it, and to this day, it brings back warm childhood memories. The cardamom rice pilaf in Around My French Table (D. Greenspan) is a dish I've made recently and enjoyed.

  • hillsboroks  on  3/12/2014 at 10:00 PM

    I made the Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices last night and Orangette is spot on about it being even better the second day. I found the cooking time for the lentils to be understated but no problem. I just let them simmer until they were tender. Also the recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups coconut milk but a can has about 1 1/2 cups in it so I just threw the whole can in. The cardamom and other spices are really wonderful here. I am definitely putting this recipe in the keeper pile.

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