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Did you know 80 perfect of the world's cardamom is used by Arabs to make coffee? It's what gives Turkish coffee it's unimitable flavor.
Prized for its aroma, cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world (third after saffron and vanilla). Its scent is a cross between mint and eucalyptus, a quality that distinguishes cardamom among the rest. Known as the Queen of Spices, what is cardamom and why it's to Indians what vanilla is to the West, as expressed by cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey in her book Spice Kitchen: Fifty Recipes Introducing Indian Spices.
Native to India, cardamom is believed to be as old as civilization. It originated in the rain forests of Southern India, where it grew wild. It is cultivated in an area known as the Cardamom Hills but is also produced in other countries, namely Sri Lanka and Guatemala.
It's botanical name is Amomum Cardamomum and it is a member of the ginger family. Along with cinnamon and black pepper, it was a principal spice imported by the Roman Empire. Ancient Romans, Egyptians and Greeks used it as a tooth cleaner and breath freshener.
In the East, cardamom has been used in cooking and medicine for millenia. In Indian and Chinese traditional medicine, cardamom has been used to treat everything from heart conditions to respiratory disease, stomach troubles and bad breath.
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Whole cardamom comes in pods that contain small dark sticky seeds. There are two main varieties: green and brown (also known as black cardamom). Green cardamom is considered more delicate and aromatic. Indian green cardamom is the most aromatic variety produced. Brown cardamom tends to have a more bitter and smoky flavor, hence they are cheaper than the green varietal. It is also possible to find white pods of cardamom, which have been bleached and are of inferior quality.
In India, this aromatic spice permeates sweet and savory dishes alike. Both the husk and seeds are used in cooking. Cardamom perfumes nearly every dessert, giving Indian sweets that distinguishable taste. It was a favorite spice of the Mughal emperors who conquered Indian centuries ago and used cardamom for sauces, meat dishes and rice. It is essential in making masala chai, a type of spiced black tea with milk. Cardamom is one of many spices used in the famous garam masala spice mix.
Outside of its native India, cardamom is primarily used in Arab, Iranian, North African and Scandinavian cuisines. Arab nations used it to flavor coffee, as do some North African countries like Ethiopia. In Morocco, it is a key ingredient in the ras-el-hanout spice mix. Cardamom is used liberally in baked goods across Finland and Sweden, and even Germany.
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How to Buy
The best way of buying cardamom is to buy whole pods and grind them as needed. Look for pods that have an oval shape and a paper-like shell. Look for pods that are a lime green in color and have not been opened. Avoid white cardamom.
If buying ground cardamom be aware that the volatile compounds are drastically reduced once they have been exposed to the air. Ground cardamom won't be as potent as buying whole cardamom but will do in pinch.
As with all spices, store whole or ground cardamom in an airtight container and keep in a dark cupboard.
For millenia, green cardamom has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medice in treating a host of diseases. The essential oils in cardamom are used to treat gum disease and tooth aches. Cardamom also acts as a digestive aid and breath freshener. Other uses include treating sore throats, respiratory troubles and inflamed eyelids, according to the book Masale by the Navdanya organization.