If you like chai, it’s because of the enchantment of a single spice out of all the heady flavorings in this Indian tea. Once you taste cardamom, even if you don’t know its name, you never forget it. It’s mysterious and exotic, and it’s not just for tea.
True cardamom grows wild in the moist shade of its native Sri Lanka, the island formerly called Ceylon, and nearby southern India, the hills of Cambodia and Laos and the jungles of Vietnam.
For all their trouble to control the trade of a spice not used in its own cuisine, the Portuguese get the credit for being the first to treat the rest of the world to cardamom. During the Age of Exploration, the island endured successive rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch, then the British, mostly in the business of trading in cinnamon and black pepper.
But cardamom pods became the island’s king of currency, trading at a price per ounce as exorbitant as gold, and still do. Now cultivated mostly in Guatemala, cardamom remains one of the most expensive spices, after saffron and vanilla.
Shankari Easwaran, whose Indian cooking classes at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op are always full, was born in southern India. But Easwaran lived in many regions of India as her father, who worked for an Italian tire company, moved the family wherever his job took him.
“I woke up to the sound of my mom grinding cardamom to make tea for us. When I close my eyes and think of cardamom, I think of that pounding sound.”
That cardamom for the morning tea was around for every meal. It’s added to savory entrees – pod and all – and is an essential component in the Indian spice mix garam masala. For dessert, it’s in yogurt and rice puddings.
Cardamom is either white (picked green) or black. The pods come from different plants but both are related to ginger. Black cardamom is smoked over an open fire and shows up in the basmati rice dish biryani – or it should. With no tandoori oven in her home, Easwaran says she uses black cardamom to add a smoky flavor to tandoori meats.
The green cardamom pod is harvested earlier and is easier to find.
Either way, the little capsule contains up to 18 sticky black seeds, each the size of a flea. They’re very crunchy. Just one aerates the entire mouth with an unforgettable eucalyptic vapor.
“I use cardamom every day,” Easwaran says.
The extracted seeds are sold in ground form in the spice rack at most grocery stores, but Easwaran thinks there is better flavor in the whole pod, which are mainstays at Indian, Afghan and Pakistani stores.
“You can grind the entire cardamom, pod and all, in a spice grinder,” Easwaran says.
She had a student who said she’d stop while making dinner to wrest each tiny seed from the pod. “This student said to me, ‘You mean the past 30 years I’ve been wasting my time?’”
For her grinding, Easwaran has moved up several evolutionary mechanical notches from a brass mortar and pestle to coffee grinder to a Magic Bullet.
Whether it was the Vikings or merchants who carried cardamom overland through Middle Eastern trading centers, when it got to northern Europe, it stayed.
The Arabs require a few split cardamom pods be dropped into the rakwi for proper Arabic coffee. Cardamom is a building block of baharat, an Arabic spice mixture.
To the west, it’s the Danes and Scandinavians who love cardamom the most.
That mouth-opening camphory sensation in Danish coffee? Cardamom. In Danish pastry? Cardamom. Drop a pod or two in a coffee filter while you’re doing a pour-over or machine brewing, and you’ve got regulation Danish coffee.
Walter Goetzler, owner-baker of Freeport Bakery, is from Bavaria, where his parents and uncles were bakers. They were too far south to get a cardamom habit. He didn’t encounter cardamom professionally until he came to the United States and chanced to work for a Danish baker.
“He was always putting it in the Danish pastry. It’s a yeast dough, and he put the cardamom in the dough itself. I add it to my Christmas scones. It gives a nice background flavor.”
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.
Cardamom for sale
As with any spice, price varies depending on where you purchase it, packaging and other factors. A few bits of it go a long way. Here is a range of prices for cardamom.
▪ Green pods: $3.50 (100 grams) 3.5 ounces
▪ Black pods: $5.49 (100 grams) 3.5 ounces
▪ Ground: $3.80-$7.15 per ounce, bottled
One local source of both kinds of pods is India Supermarket, 3992 Foothills Blvd., Roseville, (916) 786-5000
Shankari Easwaran’s shrikand
(Yogurt with cardamom and pistachios)
Shrikand needs thick yogurt. To thicken yogurt, pour a quart of commercial yogurt onto a large triple-thick piece of cheesecloth. Tie up the corners and hang the yogurt bag over a bowl in the refrigerator to drain overnight. This dessert is made easier with Greek-style yogurt.
2 cups thick yogurt
1/4 cup honey or sugar
2 strands saffron (crush between your fingers)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon finely chopped pistachios, optional
In a bowl, gently fold the sugar, saffron and cardamom into the yogurt. Refrigerate overnight, or for at least a few hours. Garnish with chopped pistachios. Serve cold.
If you add fruit, add only one: mango, strawberry or pineapple.
Sankari Easwaran’s cardamom chai
“Chai” simply means “tea,” so when a coffee shop calls it “chai tea,” they are actually saying “tea tea.” It is either “chai” or” tea.”
3/4 cup water
2 coarsely crushed cardamom pods
1 teaspoon black tea leaves
1/4 cup milk
Sugar, to taste
Bring water to a boil, stirring in the cardamom and tea. At the boil, add milk. Simmer on medium-low for about 2 minutes. Strain into a tea cup, add sugar and drink.