BOT: Elettaria cardamomum
ILL: Plate 18, No. 7
Cardamom is an eastern spice which came into Europe over the caravan routes, even in ancient Greek and Roman times, although it was then used mainly in perfume. It is said to have been grown in the royal gardens of Babylon over seven hundred years before Christ, but, if this is really true, it was well outside its natural climate and habitat. The plant is a perennial of the ginger family and forms a bush with large lanceshaped leaves, somewhat like palm fronds (though absolutely no relative) to about eight feet. It grows wild in the wet hill jungles of South India, often on the sides of ravines and under lofty tropical trees – the sort of place in which one keeps a sharp eye out for snakes. The stalks bearing the little seed pods (the part used) sprawl flat on the ground as they grow out from the base of the plant in a rather unusual way.
What is Cardamo? How to Use Cardamo Photo Gallery
Today there are cardamom plantations in many tropical countries, including Central America. Usually the site is in partially-cleared forest, with trees left standing to provide some shade. The seed pods appear over a long period and do not all ripen at the same time, so they are gathered every few weeks. They are dried in the sun or over heat, and sometimes bleached white, though their natural colour is pale green or brown.
It is the dried seed pods which are bought in grocers’ shops as cardamom Though they vary in colour and length, they all have a roughly triangular section. As cardamom is an expensive spice, it is best to judge the quality before purchase. This can be done by pulling open a pod and examining the seeds inside. They should be slightly sticky, brown-black and with a strong aromatic smell and taste. Cardamom should never be bought ground as it rapidly loses its essential oils.
Cardamom seed is warm, comforting and vaguely like eucalyptus. It is an ingredient of many liqueurs and is used also in cakes and pastries in northern Europe – Scandinavia, northern Germany and Russia. Sweden, in fact, takes a quarter of the Indian production. It is also a spice greatly liked by the Arabs (Saudi Arabia is India’s second customer), its use having been greatly spread about by Arab dhows trading from the Indian west coast ports, in the hinterland of which the cardamom originated. It is responsible for the peculiar and exotic flavour of Bedouin coffee. The long, beak-like spouts of their brass coffee pots are usually stuffed with a few opened cardamom pods. This imparts just sufficient flavour as the coffee pours past, and nothing is more characteristic of the infuriating frontier posts and police stations of the Near East than the taste of cardamom-scented coffee.
Cardamom is a vital spice in curries and pilaus, especially those from northern India and Pakistan. It is also used in discreet amounts as part of the spices in European meat dishes; for instance, in some recipes for German Sauerbraten. It is also useful in pickle and in the spices for pickled herring.
Cardamom is an excellent addition to punches and hot spiced wine. It can be used as a flavouring for custard if the bruised spice is steeped for a time in the hot milk.
There are several varieties of true cardamom (Malabar, Mysore, Ceylon etc.) and, within limits, their flavour and appearance are similar. But there are some fifty other species of plant closely related to the cardamom, and the seeds of some of these are sold as ‘cardamom’, although they may have quite a different appearance and a flavour often rather strongly of camphor. They are inferior, but are likely to be met with because real cardamom is expensive and many of these substitutes have become popular in the last twenty years. How recent is illustrated by the following:
When I was last in Bombay, an Indian friend of mine told me how, when dining out, he had discovered what he took to be a cockroach in his curry. He fished it out and called the waiter. The waiter called the manager who, in turn, called the cook. At this point, according to the classic Italian story, the cook should have eaten the cockroach, smacking his lips and exclaiming, ‘You do not like zis wonderful little fish?’ But the Indian cook respectfully pointed out that the cockroach was, in fact, a large hairy ‘cardamom’ seed. Whether it was or not I do not know, but such large, hairy brown ‘cardamoms’, though previously unfamiliar, are now becoming common. But, like cockroaches, they are best avoided.