Picture yourself on a chilly evening. Wrapped in a soft cashmere throw, you sit by the fire and sip something warm and aromatically spiced. Spices can bring so much more to our food and drink than just new flavors; they can conjure up heat on the coldest nights and warm you from within. I was born and raised in India, a land famous for its rich variety of spices used for centuries in both the culinary and medicinal worlds. When I want to summon the tastes of my childhood, the flavor that first comes to mind is cardamom.
My mother added its delicate touch to nearly everything – from teas and desserts to rice and meats. Cooking without spices would never be an option for me. As a child, my mother always forced me to drink warm milk. I hated the taste, but a hint of cardamom changed a glass of warm milk from a terrible task to a delightful treat. I still love the flavor today, and enjoy it often on chilly nights.
Cardamom, often known as the Queen of Spice or sometimes the Seeds of Paradise, is native to southern India, northern parts of Africa and the Middle East. This tropical spice demands abundant rainfall and warm temperatures for its cultivation. It is one of the most commonly used spices in the world – second only to black pepper – and valued only slightly lower than precious saffron and costly vanilla beans. Its high value makes it a popular token of love in India for holidays, weddings and other auspicious occasions. It is found on green, white and black varieties – the floral, citrusy notes of the green Madagascar variety being the most prized.
A member of the same family of plants as ginger, cardamom has many health benefits in addition to it’s flavoring. It’s rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, and contains protein, cellulose and some mineral elements. Powdered versions sold in pods are popular additions to tea and coffee in India and the Middle East, often used as headache relief, to lower blood pressure or to detoxify wastes from the kidneys and bladder. Studies have shown cardamom can be effective in the treatment of allergic skin reactions, asthma, nausea, stress and many other conditions. It also acts as a sedative, which made it a perfect addition to my warm milk at bedtime, to ensure I’d enjoy a good night’s sleep.
While the medicinal benefits of cardamom are extensive and varied, I still love it for its flavor. The warm spiciness of white or green varieties pairs beautifully with cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves, while the earthy tones of black cardamom are the perfect complement to hearty dishes like meats and stews. I like to crush a whole pod and drop it into a simmering curry, letting the sauce absorb the rich, strong flavors. Cardamom is a powerful spice though, so moderation is key to avoid overpowering your dish. If you can remember that, you can enjoy it in a variety of ways, adding it to something new every single day.
Cardamom-infused wine is gaining popularity, and I enjoy the flavor of cardamom-infused fruits. Just a pinch makes a world of difference to the taste of your morning yogurt, and nothing can top the warm spiciness of rice pudding with a hint of cardamom. I’ve recently started grinding the pods with my coffee beans to bring new flavors to my morning cup. And of course, during these cold winter months, there are a wealth of dishes that you can enhance with this fragrant spice – from pumpkin pies to carrot dishes, or to flavor apple ciders or even soups. The key to enjoying cardamom is experimentation – pick some up and add its rich, aromatic notes to all your favorite dishes.