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Ranking among the world’s most exotic spices, cardamom is not well represented in American cuisine. More’s the pity, because the ground seedpod of this rhizomatous perennial is highly versatile, thanks to its complex flavor signature: sweet, warming, resinous, pungent, aromatic, with subtle notes of citrus and mint. Finding substitutes is tricky. A carefully curated blend of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper and allspice can only approximate cardamom’s complexity. Ground cardamom often figures in Indian curries and in marinades used for savory Middle Eastern dishes. In the Arab world, the spice is also a common flavoring for coffee, tea and desserts. Scandinavian bakers add cardamom to sweet Yuletide doughs. American chefs are increasingly experimenting with the spice, adding pizzazz to such disparate treats as apple pie and cocktails.
Mankind has been experimenting with cardamom for millennia. Its name pops up in a Sanskrit political treatise from the 4th century BC. This member of the ginger family got its start on the rainforest floor of southern India, where foragers discovered that the odd looking seedpod helped retard food spoilage. Cultivation efforts soon got under way. Eventually, Greek spice merchants learned about the flavor-intense pod, which subsequently made its way to ancient Rome, as well. Much later, Viking traders introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. India remained the world’s top producer until 2000, when it was surpassed by Guatemala.
Ayurvedic healers have long valued cardamom’s ability to stimulate digestion, relieve bloat, eliminate toxins from the bloodstream and ease muscle spasms. Modern Indians often chew on the seeds to freshen the breath. A recent Western medical study suggests cardamom may reduce the risk of blood clots and hypertension.