Indian Essentials: Cardamom | Green, Black and White Cardamom | Elaichi

Did you know that Cardamom comes in three varieties?

Green Cardamom

A straw-green coloured, fibrous pod, the fruit of a ginger-like plant, enclosing tiny, pungent, sticky black seeds. They smell like a mixture of camphor, eucalyptus, orange peel and lemon, are sweet on the palate and cooling on the body. Each pod contains about 8 – 12 seeds. It is better to buy the whole pod rather than the seeds, as the flavour is more intense and is maintained longer. Bruise the pods lightly with the back of a cleaver before using. You can remove and crush the seeds if you require powder.

Only buy pods that are plump, closed, look fresh and are an even green colour. Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices, avoid older pale khaki pods. The best pods are grown on the West Coast of South India – in fact the Ghats in Kerala are referred to as the Cardamom Mountains.

Whole pods are put into rice and both savoury and sweet dishes, and ground seeds form the major part of Garam Masala and other mixed spice powders. It is also used in most Indian desserts and sweetmeats, in spiced tea, and is sucked as a mouth freshener.

The leaves of the cardamom plant can be used in soups, rice, stocks, herbal tea infusions and other dishes where are cardamom like flavour is required. The leaves are removed at the end of cooking.

Recipes will call for cardamom pods, cardamom seeds or cardamom powder. Pods are crushed and added to dishes for flavour and are removed before serving (or gently put aside during the meal). The small cardamom seeds are generally dry roasted and then ground into powder before adding to dishes. Prepackaged cardamom powder is available, but it is always best to purchase whole spices. You know what you are getting that way, and the powder will be fresh without any flavour loss.

Cardamom Pods and Seeds

Black Cardamom

Not much like the smaller, green cardamom in flavour, these large black pods have seeds with a cruder, heavier flavour and aroma. Sometimes called Greater Cardamom or Brown Cardamom, the flavour is sweet, slightly smoky, and reminiscent of camphor. It is great in curries, spice mixes, rustic dishes, and any dish that benefits from an robust, earthier, smoky flavour.

Because the flavour is quite different, the two types of cardamom should not be interchanged or substituted.

The smoky flavour comes because it is, in fact, dried over hot coals. Because it has had this treatment, it should not be dry or oil roasted before use in dishes. Beneath the smoky aromas are those of resin and camphor, as well as cardamom’s usual menthol and slightly minty aromas that provide balance to the smokiness. These intense, heady notes put black cardamom in the “warming” spice category, along with black pepper, cloves, and chillies. It is often a major component of the spice blend garam masala, which means “warming mixture.”

Black cardamom originates from the Himalayas (e.g. Nepal and Sikkim) through to Southern China, there are some African cardamoms in Madagascar, Somalia and Kameroon, and it is grown in Vietnam.

Use it sparingly in the beginning, to ensure that its robust flavour does not dominate but rather enhances and intensifies the flavours of other ingredients. Crush the pods slightly before use. The flavour of this spice will develop over time, and so consider cooking the dishes a few hours to a day in advance.

Serious Eats has this to say about Black Cardamom

Its intensity makes it ideally suited to long-cooked dishes in moist environments, where the spice has plenty of time to release its fat- and water-soluble oils. Such a strong spice needs strong flavours to stand up to it. I like it best with dried chillies, cumin, and — most importantly— lime juice. The sweet acid cuts down on a lot of black cardamom’s medicinal flavours, and I consider it essential.

Black cardamom is usually used in concert with several other spices, both to temper it down, and because it does a fantastic job of blending disparate flavours together. It also elevates relatively bland lentil and rice dishes in an unsubtle but not overwhelming manner.

Black cardamom plays well with bitter, long-cooking greens like collards. It also elevates relatively bland lentil and rice dishes in an unsubtle but not overwhelming manner. At its most simple, some rice tossed in a rice cooker with some black cardamom pods is a great improvement to a quick weeknight dinner. It’s a lot more sophisticated in sauces; it’s a common player in many North Indian curries. And in one of the more interesting cases of Indian-Chinese fusion, some swear that black cardamom is essential to certain Sichuanese dishes.

Black cardamom is not well known outside India, Nepal, Southern China where it is sometimes used in Chinese Five Spice Powder, and Vietnam.

Historically, Black Cardamom has been used to treat various stomach ailments, common infections and dental problems. It is also chewed as a mouth freshener.

Black Cardamom

White Cardamom

White cardamom is a small off-white pod the size of a pea, with four black seeds and is used a very small amount in Thai curries of Muslim origin. The whole pod is roasted before being broken open and the seeds used in a curry paste, or it can be left whole, bruised and then added to finish a curry. Green cardamom can be used, but it is more pungent, so reduce the quantity by 1/3.

Be wary when buying – ensure that they are not just bleached green cardamom seeds.

Feel free to browse recipes from our Spice Notes series and from the Indian Essentials Series.

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