Cardamom: Shifting Cuisines, Shifting Tastes

Spice of the Day (SOTD) - 1/350

Floral or sweet, musty or warm, disgusting or delicious: cardamom demands attention. Some relish the aroma it imparts to a slowly simmered stew. Others claim it douses dishes in grandmotherly perfume. Despite cardamom’s polarising flavour, one’s preference for the spice may have less to do with innate taste and more to do with cultural conditioning. From Indian cuisine to Scandinavian cookery, cardamom occupies a prominent spot on the world’s spice rack. Depending on the cuisine in which it appears, cardamom directs the interpretation of its flavour in both traditional and experimental preparations. Cardamom tastes like the dishes in which it is used.

Ever since cardamom won admirers for its potent aroma and supposed-health benefits, the spice has provoked battles and desires. Forget the mild-mannered powder from plastic McCormick jar: the real stuff is a heady experience. Once removed from their papery pods, slightly sticky cardamom seeds begin to release a menthol-y, floral, musty, sweet aroma that intensifies with a light toasting. Indigenous to Asia, cardamom grows wild in the forests of India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs 65). To extend the profits of one of the world’s most expensive spices — only saffron and vanilla rank higher — cardamom cultivation now extends to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Tanzania. While some argue that Indian-grown cardamom is higher quality, the average cardamom consumer would likely be unable to discern the provenance of various pods.

Average consumers might not be able to differentiate between Indian and Central American cardamom, but they will be able to distinguish between the major varieties of the spice. Cardamom can be found in green, black and white varieties. Green cardamom, with its small papery pod, is the most common variety. Black cardamom — with its large, deeply ridged pod and smoky aroma — is used primarily in Northern-Indian and Sichuan cooking. White cardamom is green pods that bleached for aesthetic purposes. Yet, with all these varieties, the sterile plastic jar of ground cardamom remains how most cooks allude to the potent spice.

Cardamom’s floral flavour most frequently imparts warmth and depth to Indian curries and spice mixes. It amplifies toasty rice in a savoury biryani and heightens the warmth of a sweet masala chai. But its prevalence doesn’t mean its strong, slightly strange bouquet is always welcome. Writing for Saveur, Monica Bhide says she eschewed the spice as a child, despite its permanent residence in her house. Although cardamom might seem to be an age acquired flavour, Bhide suggests the secret ingredient that helped her discover cardamom’s friendlier side wasn’t so age-exclusive. It was fat and sugar.

Just as Starbucks’ luscious sweet chai lattes prime the palate for more exotic flavours, combining cardamom with fat and sugar activates a softer, more appealing side to the luxurious spice. While Americans might rightly reply that their chai’s friendly cinnamon and nutmeg obscure the cardamom, Bhide wouldn’t agree. Neither would legions of Swedes and Finns, who enjoy cardamom forward kardemummabullar and pulla. Cardamom-scented treats avail themselves of the spice’s superpower: it’s fat-soluble. When combined with butter, cardamom’s aroma softens into a halo of warmth. This gentler side of cardamom is cinnamon’s exotic cousin, making for a friendlier taste than the pine-y, floral aroma that repelled a young Bhide and legions of Americans, familiar with the spice’s oft-jarring savoury side.

Whereas Indian cookery takes advantage of the country’s indigenous cardamom, Scandinavia’s taste for the spice evolved over centuries. As Vikings pillaged and plundered Mediterranean waterways, they found cardamom in Constantinople and brought the spice home as a symbol of their successes. Scandinavians embrace cardamom to this day. Although there doesn’t exist a record of how the spice was originally used, its presence in contemporary pastry bears little resemblance to its Indian manifestations.

Bite into a dusty cardamom spritz cookie and it’s evident that the cardamom-fat-sugar reaction doesn’t make for a universally delicious treat. The eater needs to find a bridge between sweet cardamom and savoury cardamom. If each dish eaten exists in relation with the previous dishes one has consumed, the overwhelming prevalence of cardamom in Indian curries and sweets prevents their flavour lexicon from accepting both cardamom-Indian-savoury to cardamom-Scandinavian-sweet or cardamom-sweet.

In The Flavor Thesaurus Niki Segnit offers eighteen pairings for cardamom. Twelve of these cite sweet Indian dishes, all of which Segnit describes using various synonyms for cloying. Segnit implies that Indian-inspired cardamom-laced sweets should be avoided for their brash tastes and excessive sugar content. While Indian desserts remain polarizing for Western palates, cardamom’s evocation of excessive sweetness doesn’t seem sufficient reason to urge eaters away from the floral spice. Indeed, recipe aggregators such as Food 52 and FoodGawker present more recipes for sweet uses of cardamom than savoury. Cardamom snickerdoodles use a childhood treat to safely introduce the spice. Spice-spiked granola subtly alters the taste of a routine breakfast. These desserts provide a bridge between India’s floral cardamom and Scandinavia’s honey-sweet use of the spice. Thus, cardamom can be seen as a more exotic cinnamon: imparting warmth and depth, cardamom allows a familiar dessert to hint at something foreign, and indulgent.

Cardamom; the spice hints at the exotic, the rich and the indulgent while oscillating between nostalgia and novelty, according to the eater’s association with the its flavour. While certain Indian dishes may appeal to Western eaters, the American’s nostalgic relationship with Ikea cinnamon rolls makes it easier for them to enjoy a cardamom-laced bun as an exotic, sophisticated twist on that memory.


Image via Dave Sutherland on Flickr


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