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For a spice integrally linked to Southeast Asia, it might come as a surprise to learn that the world’s leading producer of cardamom is Guatemala. Once this spice was wildly expensive, coming to Europe via the dangerous, bandit-ridden Silk Road, via Persia, Turkey and Venice, before disseminating by boat and barge to the markets of Europe. But thanks to the entrepreneurial exploits of the German coffee farmer, Oscar Majus Kloeffer, who introduced cardamom to the Americas in 1914, his Guatemalan plantations turned the seeds of this exotic plant into a fortune, and a central American nation’s biggest export.
Is it weird to say that it is something of a shame that spices are so inexpensive and easy to come by these days? For a few dollars (sometimes less) we can pop over to the local supermarket and get a generous portion of spice, helpfully dried and ground up in a nice glass jar. It wasn’t always like that. Spices were once a great luxury, expensive and truly dangerous to transport from the wilds of the East to the market towns of the West.
The fantasy novel concept of witches and warlocks producing magical powders and potions with rare ingredients is not far off from the rumors and realities of spice in the pre-modern world. Whispers of medicinal properties of precious plants from the Orient could easily be interpreted as talk of magical concoctions. So many spices, from cinnamon to pepper, truly do have a medical usage that this idea is not only the realm of fairytales.
Cardamom is used in Southeast Asia to treat a variety of illnesses, including infections of the mouth and throat, digestive problems and even to break up kidney stones. Historically, it was used as an anti-venom against scorpion and snake bites. But these days, much of the exoticism has worn off, because life and logistics are so much easier.
No longer do the precious seeds of the cardamom plant have to travel from the hands of Bangladeshi farmers to intrepid, armed merchants, traversing steppe and desert by camel, fighting off marauding robbers, heat, cold and malaria, to bring their valuable cargo to European markets, and ultimately to the tables of lords and bishops. We can’t be expected, these days, to hold up a plastic-lidded jar of spice that cost $2.50 and suddenly be in awe, but sparing a thought to the efforts required to procure such a spice not long ago would do no harm.
Cardamom is expensive, as spices go these days—the third most expensive by weight, behind only saffron and vanilla. The ground seeds of the cardamom plant have been used since at least the Bronze Age kingdom of Mycenae in ancient Greece, circa 1300 BC. A word for them was found carved onto a stone tablet, as part of the archives of a palace called the House of the Sphinxes. This means that the spice trail carried cardamom from Asia to Europe a good three millennia ago. And it probably cost a good deal more than $2.50 back then.
The spice comes in two types: black (also called Nepali, with a smokier flavor) and green (or True, the more expensive variety) cardamom. As far back as the 4th century BC, the godfather of botany, Theophrastus, distinguished these two types of the spice, both of which came from what he described as “India,” though in practice this was a catchall term for South-East Asia.
Cardamom actually loses its flavor quite quickly once it is ground, so the true aficionados buy and store it as pods and grind to use. The flavor is extremely difficult to describe, as it is not really like anything else.
It is added to coffee in Yemen, sometimes with a ratio of nearly half cardamom and half coffee to prepare their drink. You may be eating cardamom without realizing it, as it appears in many spice mixes, like curries, and if you’ve ever had traditional masal chai, you’ve drunk cardamom. It features in savory cooking in South-East Asia, and baked goods in Scandinavia, such as the Finnish dessert bread called pulla and the popular Christmas bread called Julekake (Yule cake). It can slip into some surprising places (Wrigley Eclipse Breeze Exotic Mint chewing gum has a dose thrown in, “to neutralize breath odors”).
Next time you find yourself in the spice aisle of your local supermarket, spare a thought to the heroic traders who braved untold dangers to carry bags of spice along the Silk Road. And when cooking with such spices, add a dash of awe and wonder to your curry.