CARDAMOM (Elettaria cardamomum – Zingiberaceae)

There are several botanical varieties of cardamom, a tall herbaceous perennial native to India and Sri Lanka. Elettaria produces the small seed pods that are most commonly imported into Europe; two principal types are known as Mysore and Malabar. Other plants which produce seeds pods sold as cardamom are members of the Amomum family which includes A. melegueta, known as Grains of Paradise, Guinea grains, Guinea or Melegueta pepper. This was imported into Europe from the coast of West Africa – thus its name of Pepper Coast – and it was very popular in medieval and Tudor recipes.

Elettaria cardamomum grows wild and in cultivation, preferring moist soil at a height of about 600 – 1500m (2,000 – 5,000 ft) above sea level. The leaves are long and lanceolate, and the flowering and fruiting stem grows from the base of the plant; those of Mysore are erect, those of Malabar trail on the ground. The flowers, which appear around May, are usually yellowish with a purple lip; the fruits, following around early October, are ovoid capsules of up to 2 cm (3/4 inch) long, each divided into three sections which contain rows of dark brownish-red seeds. The plant has strong, creeping rhizomes which reveal its close relationship with ginger and turmeric. One of the main hazards of cultivating cardamom is said to be the loss of pods to gourmet lizards – they are partial to the seeds!

The pods must be gathered just before they are ripe: if fully ripe, the seeds would burst out of the pods during the drying process, and they would also have lost their essential oils and so their fragrance. The pods are spread out in the sun on trays to dry and bleach, or in kilns. It was once customary to bleach the pods over sulphur fumes – the export market preferring white pods rather than the fresh pale green ones so valued in Indian cookery – but this practice is gradually decreasing.

The majority of Indian production is for local use, with less than 5 tonnes being exported annually. Other producers are Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Indochina and Thailand. Tanzania has recently attempted cardamom production too. Cardamoms are the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla.

Cardamom has been used in India as spice and medicament since the very earliest times: the Ayurveda, the Hindu system of medicine dating from at least 1,000 years before Christ, mentions it under the name of ‘Ela’. In the first century the Greek philosopher Plutarch described how the Ancient Egyptians used it in their religious ceremonies and added it to their perfumes. It was introduced to Europe via the caravan routes of the Arabs, and was used mainly in Ancient Greek and Roman times in perfume. In fact the name is thought to be derived from the Arab ‘Hehmama’, itself derived from a Sanskrit word meaning something hot and penetrating. Hippocrates referred to it as ‘kardamomon’, and Dioscorides recorded that he preferred the kind that came from Armenia. Ovid and other poets sang the praises of cardamom’s exquisite aroma.

Medicinally, the Ancients found it to be a diuretic, and effective against epilepsy, spasms, paralysis and rheumatic stiffness of joints. They added it to their wines to extract the therapeutic value of the seeds. The School of Salerno valued it in cases of cardiac disorders, and classified it as a good diuretic and stomachic. Chinese medicine, old and new, attributes a multitude of therapeutic values to cardamom, believing it a panacea for all intestinal illnesses.

Nearer our own time, Dr Leclerc attributed carminative and stomachic values to the seeds, considering them a good stimulant for all the digestive functions. Mme Maury considered them a wonderful pulmonary anti-septic, a good antispasmodic and a tonic for people with a weak heart condition due to emotional problems.


Description: Cardamon oil is obtained by steam distillation of the aromatic, fragrant seeds. The essence is liquid and colourless, with a tinge of yellowish green. It has a lovely, warm, soft and spicy scent which is used a great deal in floral perfume compositions.
The principal constituents: Cineol and terpineol, with a little limonene and traces of eucalyptol and zingiberene. Every variety of cardamon oil varies in its constituents, though, depending on the type of plant used, and indeed on variations in climate, soil etc.
There are few fragrances to compare with that of cardamom, and thus it is impossible to reproduce synthetically.


In illness
If the spice is used in cooking, cardamom can be a natural diuretic for fluid retention, and can help around the time of periods or during the menopause. A massage oil is useful for the same conditions. Mix together 20 ml (4 tsp) soya oil, 2 drops wheatgerm oil, 2 drops cypress oil and 8 drops cardamom oil. Rub clockwise on the stomach, solar plexus and thighs, preferably in the morning.

The seeds can be drunk in a decoction to help digestion and flatu¬lence: boil a few seeds in 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water for 2 minutes, then add some fresh mint. Drink after meals with honey if desired

In cookery
The small, greenish, unbleached pods (choti elaichee) are the most valued in Indian cooking; the large black pods sold as cardamom (bari elaichee) are very much less subtle, inferior, and cheaper to buy. The pods are used whole or lightly crushed in curries and pilaus; the ground seeds are a constituent of many curry powders and almost every garam masala. Always freshly grind the seeds; bought powder can be adulterated, and its loses its fragrance, as do all ground spices, very quickly. Cardamom also flavours sweets and sweet dishes in India, and the seeds are sugar coated for use at Hindu festivals and ceremonials.

In Sweden, cardamom is used as a flavouring for cakes, breads and pastries (reportedly taking a quarter of the Indian production) as it is in Germany, other Scandinavian countries and Russia. In Gel many, cardamom often finds its way into meat dishes such as Sauerbraten, as well as pates, sausages and pickles. In France, cardamom is a little neglected, giving its subtle flavour happily to some pains d’ipices and, less happily, to some bouquets garnis for fish. Cardamom can be used in punches and hot spiced or mulled wines such as the German Gliihwein. Bedouin coffee is flavoured with cardamom pods stuffed into the spout of the coffee pot.

Other uses
Cardamon oil is added to toothpaste and used in a syrup for pulmonary problems in France. The seeds can be used, coarsely ground, in pot-pourris and herb pillows. In India, the seeds are considered to be an aphrodisiac as well as a digestive aid; they are used in paan, the seed and spice mixture served after meals to help digestion and to freshen the breath, especially after eating garlic (this is also good for heavy smokers).

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