What Is Cardamom?

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on July 22, 2011

If you like cardamom (KAR-duh-muhm), you've got expensive taste — cardamom is the world's third most expensive spice, trailing only saffron and vanilla. Moreover, you may have acquired a taste for cardamom without even knowing it — cardamom helps give chai tea its exotic taste and figures prominently into spice mixes like garam masala.

Cardamom is the fruit of a perennial herb related to ginger. In its native India, it's hailed as "The Queen of Spices." Dried pods are oblong, typically green in color and about the size of a cranberry. Each pod contains about 20 tiny seeds, the primary source of scent and flavor.

The fact that cardamom has long been used in Scandinavian cuisine is paradoxical—in the context of the medieval spice trade, India and Scandinavia seem at opposite ends of the universe. Historians believe Vikings encountered cardamom in Constantinople about 1000 A.D. The Nordic adventurers were awed by the sophistication and variety in what they called "The Great City." And Byzantine merchants were intrigued by what the Vikings brought to trade — amber, furs and slaves they'd captured in Russia.

Ground cardamom loses its flavor quickly, but whole pods retain their flavor for a long time. For optimum taste, buy whole pods. Soak them in milk to soften and then scrape the seeds into your dish. You also can grind the whole pod with a mortar and pestle or crush pods lightly and simmer them in stews or rice dishes. Today, Guatemala is the world's largest exporter of cardamom; most of the cardamom produced in India stays in India. Don't let its high price-per-pound scare you; a little goes a very long way.

— By Jo Marshall, Creator of Cookcabulary