Cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. It has been highly valued for its medicinal properties and use in flavoring dishes since ancient times.
Cardamom requires a very specific climate: it is extremely sensitive to temperature fluctuations, requires moderate rainfall, loves shade, and prefers low elevations. A member of the Ginger family, cardamom is native to the southern Indian state of Kerala, where it grows wild in the forests. It grows to up to twelve feet tall and has white to light violet orchid-like flowers. The plant must be at least two years old to produce the prized pods, which must be picked, generally by female laborers, about a month before they are fully ripe. Each pod contains only a dozen seeds, which makes cardamom a high-labor crop with a low yield and a high price.
There are two types of cardamom: the green Elettaria cardomomum and the uncommon black Amomum subulatum. Most markets, especially in the Middle East, prefer the green version.
Surprisingly, most of the world’s cardamom is grown in Guatemala rather than in cardamom’s native India. The spice was first introduced to Guatemala by German colonists to decrease the cost of cardamom and reap profits. Today, Guatemala supplies forty-five percent, or approximately 23,000 metric tons, of the world’s supply of cardamom per year; India is second with twenty-one percent of the market.
More than half of the cardamom produced is consumed by the Middle East. In 2010, Saudi Arabia imported thirty-six percent of the cardamom produced, followed by Egypt (19%), and Pakistan (7%).
Cardamom was first referred to in Sanskrit approximately 5,000 years ago, but arrived in Babylon well before then, around 7000 BC. The ancient spice was first mentioned in what is now the Middle East in an Egyptian papyrus dating to 1550 BC. In ancient India and Egypt, cardamom was used as a breath freshener and medicinal plant. Cardamom is also said to have been grown in the Babylonian gardens around 720 BC. The spice arrived in Greece around 50 AD, where it was essential to cuisine, perfume, incense, and medicine, and finally made its way to the rest of Europe around 1214 AD.
Its citrus and cinnamon perfume, which derives from the essential oils terpinene, cineol, and limonene, makes cardamom unique. In addition, the spice is very healthy, as it contains manganese, iron, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, zinc, potassium, and phosphorus. Furthermore, the spice is anti-inflammatory and works as an antidote to venoms and food poisoning, cardiac stimulant, and massage oil. It can be used to treat asthma, colds, cancer, bladder and kidney diseases, digestive problems, depression, bronchitis, hiccups, dental diseases, headaches, and tuberculosis.
Cardamom as a Spice
Naturally, cardamom is primarily used to flavor food. It is generally used as a powder or as the seeds themselves. In the US it is found in cookies, cakes, custards, pudding, cream, and ice cream; in the Middle East, it is an important ingredient in rice puddings, man’oushe pastries, confectionery, meat preparations, halwa, masghati, ab-nabat gheichi, cardamom tea, and baklava. Furthermore, cardamom often seasons carrot, quince, and watermelon preserves. In addition, there are many spice blends containing cardamom, such as the ras el hanout from Morocco; baharat from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq; curry powder from India; and masala from Malaysia.
Cardamom and Culture
Cardamom is especially used in Middle Eastern cuisine during ceremonies, marriages, and religious celebrations. This is particularly true of Ramadan, which coincides with a peak in cardamom imports to the Middle East.
Harissa, a dish containing meat, grain, and cardamom, is an example of a meal served at the break of the fast.
However, cardamom’s primary use in the Middle East is in qahwah, or coffee. There are approximately ten grams of cardamom for every 250 grams of coffee, but larger quantities may be used for celebrations or to honor a guest. Sometimes qahwah is also flavored with cloves, rose water, or saffron.
Cardamom coffee is often praised in Saudi Arabian traditional colloquial poetry, indicating the importance of its role in Saudi Arabian culture. A poem by a Bedouin woman praises the provider of qahwah:
“O generous greeter of guests / O gallant giver of cardamom coffee…”
Swelim al-‘Ali an-Nwesir as-Sahali, another poet from the Middle East, includes the spice in the description of a wealthy life:
“After a life of glory and good fortune with plenty of coffee beans and cardamom and fat sheep to be slaughtered for guests…”
In Jordan, Bedouins still roast and grind the coffee beans and cardamom by hand, as evident in the following video: Bedouin Coffee in Jordan
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