Calming cardamom soothes the body. Its subtle flavor reminds me of quiet evenings with my mother, sipping her version of cardamom-infused tea, or kava; and then a late night dessert of her slightly sweet firni (rice pudding), laced with crushed cardamom seeds and a dash of keora essential oil (from the piney Pandanus species). Most modern-day cardamom cultivation, however, drastically reduces biodiversity while farmers skirt the edges of poverty. Yet opportunities to go organic may not only protect agroforest diversity but also improve cultivators’ livelihoods.
The third-most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla, Elettaria cardamomum is known as “The Queen of Spices.” It belongs to the ginger family — Zingiberaceae — like turmeric, ginger, and galangal. India’s Western Ghat forests of the Malabar Coast (Kerala) are cardamom’s center of origin, and its diverse varieties are centered there. British planters systematically organized plantations in India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) more than 150 years ago, according to P.N. Ravindran and K.J. Madhusoodanan in “Cardamom: The Genus Elettaria.” India had a virtual trade monopoly for much of that time, but in the late 1970s, Guatemala became the world’s top producer of cardamom. It now supplies nearly two-thirds of the world demand. Interestingly, Guatemalans do not enjoy cardamom in their cuisine; all of it is for export. India, the second-largest producing country, sells most of its cardamom at home. The largest importer of this spice is Saudi Arabia.
Cardamom delicately permeates many South Asian sweets including rasgulla (homemade cheese ovals, simmered in clear sugar water), ras malai (similar to rasgulla but simmered in sweet cream), gulab jamuns (a mixture of khoya — milk reduced over low heat — and wheat flour, fried and soaked in a syrupy sugar sauce), and gajjar ka halwa (a sweet, ghee-laden grated carrot dish). Arabs and Turks either grind their coffee beans with cardamom or place a pod at the spout and let the hot coffee capture the volatile oils. It also is commonly found in such assorted spice mixtures as South Asian garam masala, North African ras el-hanout, Middle Eastern baharat and Persian advieh.
In Ayurveda, cardamom oil, like clove oil, is used externally on toothaches. Many people in South Asia, my mother included, carry small metal pill boxes filled with cardamom pods to freshen and sweeten the breath. Seeds are crushed and steeped in hot water and sipped to help digestion and act as a carminative.
The flavors that signify high-quality cardamom are camphoraceous, sweet-spicy, floral and woody-balsamic. Volatile oils are what determine cardamom’s flavor, and the types that it has in abundance include 1,8-cineole, which has a fresh camphor aroma and is used extensively in perfumes and flavorings; alpha terpinyl acetate, mildly herbaceous, sweet, spicy and piney; and limonene.
Majdalawieh and Carr reported last year in the Journal of Medicinal Food that both black pepper and cardamom exhibit antitumor properties and may act as natural agents that promote the maintenance of a healthy immune system. They postulate that black pepper and cardamom constituents can potentially be used to regulate inflammatory responses (a leading cause of many degenerative diseases), and perhaps prevent or attenuate the formation of certain cancers.
Cardamom grows best in warm and humid climates at altitudes of 1,900 to 4,900 feet under a canopy of evergreen trees. The pods are picked 20 to 25 days before ripening to ensure the highest volatile oil content. Cracked or split pods may indicate a pod picked at or after ripening. The husks provide good protection from oil loss, since deterioration begins immediately once removed.
Like many commercial crops, cardamom is usually cultivated using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, climate change and droughts in India have dramatically affected the spice’s production, and the practice of clear-cutting under the canopy for cardamom plantations has decreased its diversity.
But recently, a few organic cardamom growers have emerged in India, Guatemala and Tanzania. The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) provides links to organic farmers nationwide, including cardamom growers. In Guatemala, Frontier Herbs is working with the Santa Maria Farmer Co-Op, which cultivates organic cardamom. And Reyes et al., in the journal Mountain Research and Development, reported in 2006 that cardamom farmers in Tanzania do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, simply because of the high cost. However, like in India, the clearing of mountain forest lands for cardamom cultivation has decreased plant diversity and encouraged the growth of invasive trees.
To counter these effects, perhaps it is time for spice lovers to help farmers in South Asia, Latin America and Africa revitalize traditional farming methods or innovate upon organic methods to grow a healthier planet. Ultimately, the quality of the cardamom rests on many factors, including the sustainable lives of the farmers and the land they tend.
Here are some cardamom recipes:
My Mother’s Firni (Rice Pudding)
- Remove cardamom grains from the pods and grind the seeds.
- Add ground rice flour to cold milk and stir until there are no lumps. Add ground cardamom and stir.
- In a nonstick pan, heat rice-milk mixture on medium-low heat.
- Cook for 1 to 3 hours until reduced to the consistency of heavy cream, stirring regularly so that the mixture does not stick.
- Add half a cup of sugar. It will melt, thinning the liquid. Continue to cook over medium-low heat for another 30 to 45 minutes, until mixture is once again the consistency of cream.
- Let firni cool slightly, and add the keora oil while it is still warm. Stir, transfer into a serving dish and put in the refrigerator to cool. It will thicken into pudding.
- When ready to serve, decorate with the silver foil and sprinkle with crushed pistachio.
Cardamom Tea (Kava)
Makes 1 cup
- Bring water to a boil, and pour over tea leaves and cardamom.
- Steep for 3 to 4 minutes. Add sweetener if desired.
Photo: Green cardamom pods. Credit: Sarah Khan.