The Queen of Spices
Latin name: Elettaria cardamomum
Common name: True cardamom
Big, bold, perfumed, exotic, elegant and delectable. I could go on. Cardamom, once tasted, is never forgotten and deserves its regal reputation. It is the 3rd most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla due to its superb aroma and flavour and its labour intensive harvesting. Every pod is picked by hand.
The cousin of cardamom is Elettaria ensal or Wild Sri Lankan cardamom. But this is chemically different from true cardamom. Black cardamom, Amomum subulatum, a native of north eastern India, is different again. It has a coarser smokey aroma and flavour. The pods are dried over open flames.
True cardamom is native to southern India and Sri Lanka. Until 1980 India was the world’s largest grower of cardamom. The Malabar Coast in India is a hilly region known as the Cardamom Hills. Now cardamom is widely grown from Nepal to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Central America and Tanzania, with Guatemala taking the lead.
A Zing a Zing Zing
Cardamom is a member of the ginger family Zingiberaceae, a clump-forming herbaceous perennial that grows from rhizomes to up to 6m in height. Its natural habitat is the forest floor. To mimic its natural habitat growers often intercrop it with tea, betel nut palms or black pepper.
The leaves are like green swords with white flowers spikes that grow up to a metre long. Pollinated by insects the plant flowers all year round. The ridged green torpedo shaped pods contain the black seeds which I think look like spider poo (they really do).
Most of the aroma and flavour is in these unpromising looking seeds. Every 3-5 weeks the pods are harvested when ripe before they have the chance to split and spill their precious cargo. They are then dried in a curing room, known as flue curing, a technique which keeps the green colour of the pods.
Historically cardamom was once traded on the Spice Route. Used as a perfume by the Greeks and Romans it rates a mention in 4th Century BC Sanskrit texts where it was described as given as an offering.
Carted off to Scandinavia by the Vikings, where it is still very popular today, it was and is used in baking. Scandinavian gingerbread is flavoured with cardamom and is delicious. Elsewhere it is frequently used in curry and to flavour masala chai. The Arabic drink of gahwa is a cardamom-spiced coffee.
In Ayurvedic medicine, it has a whole host of uses, leading it to have a reputation as something of a wonder spice. It is commonly used to treat stomach ailments, asthma, colds, sore throats, bronchitis, heart problems, stress, overwork, depression, eyesight problems, as a skin conditioner and for bad breath!
Cardamom is 42.3% alpha-terpinyl acetate, 5.6% limonene and 5.4% linalool. This gives it a citrusy back note with an aroma that manages to be spicy, floral and herbal all at the same time. Makrut lime leaves and juniper also contain limonene which together with cardamom makes them such good botanical companions. Linalool, another ‘citrus’ compound is also present in juniper and coriander.
Cardamom in Gin
In gin it has a spicy perfumed taste that is quite distinctive once you get your taste buds attuned. The hint of citrus tangos on your tastebuds nicely with the spicy perfume. It is best used sparingly though as it has a tendency to overwhelm shyer botanicals and can be a bit nauseous making.