Cardamom is indigenous to southern India and Sri Lanka but is now cultivated in South America, Africa and Asia. It is one of the most ancient spices in the world and one of the most highly valued; it is second in price only to saffron. The ancient Egyptians used cardamom seeds to clean their teeth; the Romans used them for perfumes. Due to its high value, cardamom is sometimes referred to as the Queen of spice. In Bedouin culture it is traditional for guests to be shown the cardamom pods to be used to make their cardamom coffee. The best pods are plump and blemish-free and imply respect and esteem for the guests.
The only true cardamom is Elettaria cardamomum, but because it is expensive it is sometimes substituted by or adulterated with cardamom’s inferior poor cousins, Siam cardamom, Nepal cardamom, winged Java cardamom or bastard cardamom.
Cardamom pods are oval shaped fruits that come in three colours. The outer pods may be chewed for their flavour and freshness but are rarely swallowed. The inner seeds are the most valued. Their bouquet is pungent, warm and aromatic and they taste pleasantly bitter and cleansing. Green pods are the finest and typically contain 10 to 20 black or dark brown seeds. White pods are simply green pods that have been bleached; brown pods (often called black cardamom) are larger and coarser in both texture and flavour and contain up to 50 hard brown seeds.
Cardamom is most widely available as whole dried green pods. Ground cardamom is also available but is easy to adulterate so should only be bought from trusted suppliers. Cardamom is a common flavouring in Indian cuisine, especially in garam masala and curry powders. It is also used in sweet recipes from ice cream to cakes to breads. Cardamom is used to flavour Arab and Turkish coffee. Its essential oil is used in perfumes and some drinks.
In Western medicine cardamom is rarely used for its own properties but rather it is added to other medicines to improve their flavour. In India it is used to aid digestion and to treat obesity. In the Arab world it is considered an aphrodisiac.