Cardamom (/ˈkɑːrdəməm/), sometimes cardamon or cardamum, is the world’s third-most expensive spice. Only vanilla and saffron surpass it in price per weight. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the leading importers of the spice. But why (they like it?), we still need to find out.
The two main types are:
- True or green (or when bleached, white) cardamom. From the species Elettaria cardamomum and distributed from India to Malaysia. White cardamom is often actually Siam cardamom, Amomum krervanh. A pound of organic green cardamon can cost up to around $200.
- Black cardamom, also known as brown, greater, large, longer, or Nepal cardamom. From the species Amomum subulatum and is native to the eastern Himalayas. Cultivated in Eastern Nepal, Sikkim, and parts of Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India, and southern Bhutan.
You can recognize them by their small seed pods: triangular in cross-section and spindle-shaped, with a thin, papery outer shell and small, black seeds. Elettaria pods are light green and smaller, while Amomum pods are larger and dark brown.
Where does it Grow and How is Cardamom Produced?
It is a spice from the seeds of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum in the family Zingiberaceae. Both species are native to the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia.
By the early 21st century, Guatemala had become the largest producer in the world. With an average annual yield between 25,000 and 29,000 tonnes. Oscar Majus Kloeffer, a German coffee planter introduced the plant there in 1914.
India, formerly the largest producer, since 2000 has been the second worldwide, generating around 15,000 tonnes annually.
Much production of cardamom in India is on private property or in areas which the government owns and leases out to farmers. Traditionally, farmers clear small plots of land within the forests (called eld-kandies), where the wild or acclimatised plant grow, during February and March.
They cut down and burn the brushwood, and tear up the the roots of strong weeds in order to free the soil. Then, after clearing, cardamom plants spring up all over the prepared plots. If left alone for a couple of years, the cardamom plants may have eight to ten leaves and reach 1 foot (0.30 m) in height.
In the third year, they may be 4 feet (1.2 m) in height. Then, in the following May-June, they weed the ground again and by September to November they obtain a light crop. In the fourth year, they weed the plants again. If the cardamoms grow less than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart, they transplant them.
The plants grow for three or four years. Historically the life of a plantation is about eight or nine years. Apparently,above 2,000 feet (610 m), the cardamoms grow are of a better quality.
Other Countries Producing Cardomom
The demand is increasing since the 1980s, principally due to China, for both A. villosum and A. tsao-ko. Farmers living at higher altitudes in localized areas of China, Laos, and Vietnam, people typically isolated from many other markets, have tried to meet this demand.
Other producers include Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The industry is highly labor intensive, and each hectare requires a high degree of maintenance throughout the year. Production constraints mentioned are recurring climate vagaries, the absence of regular re-plantation, and ecological conditions associated with deforestation.
The Greek father of botany, Theophrastus, already made the distinction between the two types of cardamom, κάρδαμομον and ἄμωμον in the fourth century BCE.
The first references to cardamom we can find in Sumer, and in the Ayurvedic literature of India. Nowadays, other countries, such as Guatemala, Malaysia and Tanzania cultivate it.
The German coffee planter Oscar Majus Kloeffer introduced Indian cardamom (kerala) for cultivation in Guatemala before World War I. By 2000, Guatemala had become the biggest producer and exporter in the world, followed by India.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the cardamom trade developed into a lucrative luxury business. Cardamom was one of the spices eligible for import tax in Alexandria in 126 CE.
In the middle ages, Venice became the principal importer of the spice to the west. Along with pepper, cloves and cinnamon, which merchants from the Levant traded with salt and meat products. Later, in the 16th century, the Portuguese became involved in the trade, when it conquered the west coast of India. But it took until the 19th century for the spice to become of major interest in a wider scale to Europeans.
The Name Cardamom
The name comes from the Latin cardamomum, which is the Latinisation of the Greek καρδάμωμον (kardamomon), a compound of κάρδαμον (kardamon), “cress” + ἄμωμον (amomon), which was probably the name for a kind of Indian spice plant.
The earliest form of the word κάρδαμον meaning “cress” is the Mycenaean Greek ka-da-mi-ja, written in Linear B syllabic script, in the list of flavourings on the “Spice” tablets found among palace archives in the House of the Sphinxes in Mycenae. The modern genus name Elettaria comes from the root ēlam attested in Dravidian languages.
The scientific name for the cardamom genus “Elettaria” derives from the Tamil name for “cardamom seeds”. Production began in ancient times. Ancient Sanskrit texts refer to it as “Ela”.
The Babylonians and Assyrians recognized the health benefits of the spice early on, and trade in cardamom opened up along land routes and by the interlinked Persian Gulf route controlled from Dilmun as early as the third millennium BCE Early Bronze Age, into western Asia and the Mediterranean world.
The ancient Greeks thought highly of cardamom, and the Greek physicians Dioscorides and Hippocrates wrote about its therapeutic properties, identifying it as a digestive aid.
Both forms of cardamom are used as a medicine or in medicinal teas. In Korea, medicinal (Amomum villosum var. xanthioides) and black cardamom (Amomum tsao-ko) are used in traditional tea called jeho-tang.
Uses and Recipes
Both forms are used as flavourings and cooking spices in both food and drink. E. cardamomum (green cardamom) is used as a spice, and masticatory; it is also smoked.
Besides use as flavourant and spice in foods, cardamom-flavoured tea, also flavoured with cinnamon, is consumed as a hot beverage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
The spice has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance. Black cardamom has a distinctly more smoky, though not bitter, aroma, with a coolness some consider similar to mint.
Green cardamom is one of the most expensive spices by weight but little is needed to impart flavour. It is best stored in the pod, as exposed or ground seeds quickly lose their flavour. Grinding the pods and seeds together lowers both the quality and the price. For recipes requiring whole pods of the spice, a generally accepted equivalent is 10 pods equals 1 1⁄2 teaspoons of ground cardamom.
Cardamom in Cooking
It is a common ingredient in Indian cooking. It is also often used in baking in the Nordic countries, in particular in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, where it is used in traditional treats such as the Scandinavian Yule bread Julekake, the Swedish kardemummabullar sweet bun, and Finnish sweet bread pulla. In the Middle East, green cardamom powder is used as a spice for sweet dishes, as well as traditional flavouring in coffee and tea.
In some Middle Eastern countries, coffee and cardamom are often ground in a wooden mortar, a mihbaj. Then they cook it together in a skillet, a mehmas, over wood or gas, to produce mixtures as much as 40% cardamom.
In Asia, people use both types of cardamom in both sweet and savory dishes. Both are components in spice mixes, such as Indian and Nepali masalas and Thai curry pastes. Green cardamom is often used in traditional Indian sweets and in masala chai (spiced tea). Or as a garnish in basmati rice and other dishes.
People use individual seeds to chew on in much the same way as chewing gum. So confectionery giant Wrigley uses it for its products. Its Eclipse Breeze Exotic Mint packaging indicates the product contains “cardamom to neutralize the toughest breath odors”. People include it in aromatic bitters, gin, and herbal teas.
Cardamom in Essential Oil
The content of essential oil in the seeds is strongly dependent on storage conditions, but may be as high as 8%. In the seeds of round cardamom from Java (A. kepulaga), the content of essential oil is lower (2 to 4%).