There are different varieties of cardamom, although the smaller green cardamom, elettaria cardamomum, is the one being discussed here. There are other cardamom types, such as black cardamom which, while both are members of the ginger family, bear scant resemblance in flavor. Green cardamom is used for both sweet and savory cooking and baking, while black cardamom with its unique smoky quality, is used only for savory dishes and has developed a following all its own.
Green cardamom pods come from a perennial bush of the ginger family that can grow to up to 12 feet tall. It is native to India, and grows wild in rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka, at relatively low altitudes. The plant will only flower and fruit in tropical climates. Guatemala is now the largest exporter of cardamom, even more so than India. The plant needs wet soil and heat to grow and bear the little fruits, harvested just before fully ripe and dried, either in the sun, similarly to coffee, or in special drying rooms. The very best dried cardamom pods are pale greenish in color. Each paperlike pod holds approximately 12 to 20 dark brown or black highly aromatic seeds. It is best to buy either whole pods or whole seeds that have been removed from the pod. Pre ground cardamom loses its flavor too easily. Also, the pods themselves have little flavor and commercially it is too easy to grind the whole pod together, thus lowering the price and the quality of the ground spice. Grinding the seeds is simple in a mortar and pestle or a small spice grinder, and one is assured of the quality of the product. Many dishes in India call for whole, unbroken or only slightly crushed pods to be used.
Anyone who has eaten Indian cuisine, or cooked Indian dishes, knows well how often cardamom is an ingredient. It is almost always used in a Garam Masala mixture, often seen as an ingredient in Northern Indian dishes such as rice Biryani, creamed spinach and dhal. There are almost as many variations of Garam Masala as there are households in India. A very simple mixture, and easy to remember is to use whole spices in equal parts of cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, cloves, bay leaf and black pepper. My most often used recipe for Garam Masala is this one below.
- 4 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds from about 15 pods, measured after removing & discarding husks
- 3 inches true cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 whole nutmeg
In a small pan, roast separately the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. As each starts to turn fragrant, turn onto a plate to cool. Put all the spices together into an electric blender or small coffee mill and grind to a fine powder, then store in a glass jar with an airtight seal.
In addition to its use in savory dishes, cardamom is used extensively in breads and sweets. Cardamom has a lovely flavor and aroma, quite penetrating and strongly aromatic. While it is one of the most expensive spices, very little is needed to impart flavor. An Indian dessert called Gulab Jamun uses the seeds ground in either the little balls of dough before frying, or in their syrup, or both. In northern European countries it is used in Stollen breads as well as many other cakes, pastries and cookies. In some places in the Middle East, cardamom is mixed with green coffee beans and roasted together and ground. Some of these mixtures may have as much as 40 percent cardamom.
There are also white cardamom pods commercially available, and some feel these are superior. In reality, these are no more than bleached pods of the green cardamom. If cardamom is not yet known in your lexicon of spices, search it out in a good quality spice shop and try it out. If it is a total unknown, try it first in a dessert, such as added into cookie dough, to first test out the flavor distinctions. If adventurous, try out a Garam Masala in an Indian dish, or drop a few seeds into your coffee for a treat.