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Cardamom – Botany And History

Cardamom is an extensively well-known spice that has been employed for both medicinal and culinary uses since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. It is closely related to the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) although it only possesses very minor nuances that may be considered ‘ginger-like’. Cardamom as a spice is chiefly derived from the seeds of the pod of either the Elettaria or the Amomum varieties, although the seed pods, leaves, and even the flowers of the plant are also employed as either herbage or spice – in earlier times more common, but nowadays only fairly rarely except within the context of herbal medicine.

There are basically two major variants of cardamom – green cardamom, and black cardamom – and while they both share similar nomenclatures, their flavours are widely divergent, with green cardamom possessing a more vibrant, light, yet intensely aromatic aroma, redolent of minute notes of camphor intermingled with a resinous after-note, while black cardamom possesses a heavier, smokey, full-bodied aroma with a hint of mintiness.

While cardamom is an extensively employed culinary and medicinal spice / herb throughout both the Western and Eastern cultures, its origins are commonly thought to be Asiatic, although for a time it was believed that the spice was a predominantly Western additive. Despite long-standing use in both Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Graeco-Roman cultures, the earliest recorded employment of cardamom as a culinary and medicinal spice can be found in the collected body of Indian medicinal treatises generally called ‘Ayurveda’, although its origins are not wholly Indian. The two divergent varieties of cardamom (Elettaria and Amomum) have different points of origin, with the former typically being ascribed Indian origins chiefly for its predominant use within the area since ancient times, while the latter is commonly ascribed either Chinese or Sri Lankan origins, due to the preference and widespread usage of the plant for both cuisine and medicine within those areas at perhaps the same time (if not later) than that of the former.

Well into the early Mediaeval period, seafaring traders soon brought the spice into the sphere of European influence and use, although historically, Europeans may have used cardamom as a culinary and medicinal spice long before the Middle Ages, as trading caravans from the Orient toward Rome and, subsequently, its annexed territories may have brought the use of cardamom (and other spices and herbs of Asiatic origin) along with it, especially in areas where Roman influence (in the absence of an already established Asiatic rule) became predominant and inevitable acculturation became the norm. The use of cardamom was initially relegated solely to the medicinal within the Western context, chiefly because the relative costliness of the spice as well as its rarity made it too precious a commodity to solely be squandered on culinary applications alone. In the East however, cardamom was used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, and was a very popular spice made available to a wide range individuals from varying societal classes, which is a stark contrast to how cardamom was viewed and employed in the West. [1] To this day, cardamom remains a significantly expensive spice, and is often considered the third most expensive spice in the world, preceded only by vanilla and saffron, respectively and followed shortly after by true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum).

Just like all spices and herbs that were (and still are predominant) expensive and in great demand, the source of cardamom was originally intentionally obscured by traders and merchantmen chiefly to increase its price – both by controlling the supply and by adding an air of mystery to the commodity.

For a time, cardamom’s origins were thought of by the Western world as predominantly Egyptian, simply due to the fact that it is commonly employed in Egyptian herbal medicine and cuisine. Merchantmen who sold and traded with the spice promoted equally confusing places of origin, often using made-up names to confound (and subsequently mystify) the spice, thereby increasing its salability. Today, it is now widely known that cardamom is chiefly grown in India (for the Elettaria (green / white / tan) varieties, and in Southern and South-Eastern China (for the Amomum (black / dark brown) varieties), although a larger body of growers within Asia, and even outside of Asia – such as in tropical Australia – have pitched in with the cultivation of both variants of cardamom to supplement then still steady demand for the flavourful aromatic spice. Nevertheless, the most common varieties of cardamom available in the market these days are still those of Indian and Chinese origin (for each differing variant, respectively). The largest country which produces commercial-grade cardamom seeds however is Guatemala, who had begun the mass-production of the spice upon its introduction in 1914. The most common variety produced in Guatemala are the Elettaria variants, although, due to the demand for Amomum varieties, it too has been included in the choice-list for mass production. The popularity and profitability of cardamom and its impact on the Guatemalan economy has even elicited the creation of an association dedicated to the quality-control and propagation of cardamom production – the Asociacion de Cardamomeros de Guatemala (Association of Cardamom Growers / Producers of Guatemala).

The cardamom plant is a moderately large, fleshy perennial plant that springs from a rhizome. It is distinctly discernable for its broad, silky lanceolate leaves which measure between one to almost three feet in length and which comprises the whole of the plant itself. Despite its relatively short stature, it is most commonly referred to albeit erroneously as a ‘tree’. The leaves, which are smooth (bordering on the glossy) are dark-green to lime-green in colouration. Cardamom is also notable for its colourful inflorescence, which is typically yellow to red-hued, although examples of white, pink, and even purple flowers with ‘lips’ of a distinctly separate hue have also been noted. Cardamom the spice is derived from its fruits, which are smallish to medium-sized ovoids measuring at the most some four-and-a-half inches in length, and are usually lime green, pale yellow, or grey in colour, and possessed of a smooth epicarp. The seeds, depending upon the variety, are either pale green, grayish-white, yellowish, reddish-brown, or chocolate brown, to near black in hue depending on the variety, with the lighter colours typically belonging to the Elattaria variant, and the darker ones typically belonging to the Amomum variety. These seeds are extracted and then sun-dried, or otherwise pan-dried. Varying methods of drying and processing result in different hues, and subsequently, different flavour profiles. [2]

Elettaria cardamomum
Elettaria cardamomum (Cardamom)

While it is commonly believed that green cardamom is a vastly superior spice compared to black cardamom, this is typically no more than a marketing misnomer. What is true however is that the two differing variants do display as certain regional ‘exclusivity’, as exemplified by the penchant for Indian cuisine to only employ green cardamom, which is contrasted by the tendency for Chinese or Chino-inspired cuisine to prefer black cardamom. This divergent preference also applies to the use of the spice as medicine. The misnomer that green cardamom is superior may have also sprung from the often unfortunate adulteration of ground cardamom through the inclusion of its pericarp – a thin coating or skin which forms the ‘shell’ of the seed, that is both odourless and tasteless – during the grinding process to both increase the bulk and to cut down on the labour intensive process of having to remove it from the seeds. While this practice is common in Asiatic variants, its occurrence is prevalent for both varieties of cardamom, and is typically the case with cheaper, ready-bottled powder varieties.

Cardamom – Herbal Uses

Nowadays, cardamom, regardless of the variety, is most commonly employed as a culinary spice first and foremost, and as a medicinal plant after. In ancient times however, cardamom was primarily (perhaps even strictly) relegated to the realm of the medicinal, as its highly costly nature and relative rarity made it too much of a precious commodity to be so casually or frivolously employed in culinary flavouring. This was not a universal given however, as cardamom-flavoured or spiced foodstuffs were commonplace (albeit only for the upper-classes and the moneyed elite) from ancient times until well into the Middle Ages, where the use of the spice – by itself or intermixed with others – was at its zenith on the Western side of matters, while its use was very commonplace throughout much of the East, especially since it was not quite as relegated solely to the upper echelons of society, as was in the West. Cardamom plays a near-indispensable role in Indian cuisine, where it is used for everything from stews, to meat-based dishes, vegetable-based foods, breads, and even dessert and sweetmeats. India’s cardamom variant is typically lighter, bordering on the slightly mellow, with a resinous and highly aromatic nature, with base-notes that can be best described as fresh, crisp, yet with a palpable body. In Indian cuisine, it is most typically lightly sautéed in either coconut or sesame oil prior to use. It is employed in both its ground and whole form, although the former is used more commonly for soups, stews, or general seasoning, while the latter is used predominantly in preserves such as pickles, chutneys, spreads, and their ilk. Perhaps the most notorious use cardamom within the context of Indian cuisine is in its integration into their everyday beverages. Drinks such as coffee or tea would be only half-as-good sans the inclusion of whole or ground cardamom. Its nigh-indispensability has even made it a regular addition to spice mixtures for daily use (garam masala). [3]

Outside of Indian cuisine, it is also the most commonly employed cardamom variant throughout the majority of the Western world, being used for generally the same purposes as that of Indian cuisine, but also being included in the production of alcoholic beverages (both of a medicinal and purely gustatory kind). In the Western context however, cardamom is rarely used in the creation of desserts, although traditional sweetmeat and preserves recipes do call for its occasional inclusion.

In Chinese cuisine (and subsequently, a number of Chinese-inspired foods), the variant of choice is black cardamom which is employed in both cooking and medicine – with the latter being more common than the former. Within the culinary context however, black cardamom is often employed to flavour heartier dishes, especially spicy ones due to its more robust, smokey, full-bodied aroma and flavour profile. It is often incorporated into spicy dishes to add a little kick and a subtle nuance that compliments the dish well. When powdered, it can be employed as a seasoning, or otherwise combined with other spices and herbs to create a spice-rub. Black cardamom also features in the creation of a number of regional liquor recipes, although, unlike green Elattaria cardamom, black cardamom is never employed for the flavouring of desserts and sweetmeats and is exclusively employed for seasoning foodstuffs (especially meat-based dishes), and for the formulation of medicated potions, elixirs, tonics, and the like.

When employed medicinally, cardamom is usually mixed with foodstuffs or beverages and rarely used by itself. The most common preparations that include cardamom are caffeinated beverages such as coffee or tea which are drunk both for its flavour and for its stomachic and digestif properties. This practice is very commonplace in India, where the larger body of tea or coffee drunk contains at least a minute amount of cardamom (alongside other choice spices and herbs). Due to cardamom’s pricey nature and potent aroma, it is almost never used unaccompanied by other spices or herbs either as a compliment or a base although powdered varieties that include the pericarp during processing may be decocted mildly and drunk as either an aperitif or a digestif, as the inclusion of the flavourless and equally odourless ‘skin’ tends to make it milder, although no less effective. In traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda), cardamom has a long-standing reputation for being an unparalleled stomachic. It is said that consuming cardamom or integrating it into meals not only helps the stomach to digest the food better, but invariably improves one’s capacity to absorb and assimilate nutrients. [4]

Decocted by itself, weak liquors are drunk for colic, and mild to moderately strong liquors can be drunk as an effective analgesic, especially for the treatment of moderate muscular pains and spasms. Moderately strong cardamom tisanes may also be given to individuals who suffer from asthma or bronchial problems, as it helps to clear the bronchial passageways, cool the body, and elicit a mildly expectorant effect. [5] Drinking cardamom tisane is a sure way to remedy nausea and quell vomiting and dizzy-spells, and, if combined with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, it makes for an excellent febrifuge. Stronger decoctions of cardamom seeds (regardless of the variety) may be used as a topical rinse or medicated wash for the treatment of various skin-disorders, while a gargle of cardamom liquor (which may, or may not be mixed with basil, cloves, or cinnamon) is known the world-over as an excellent remedy for halitosis and is a better alternative to store-bought gargles that are notorious for their ‘sting’. [6]

Strong decoctions of cardamom, combined with fenugreek leaves, cloves, cinnamon, and mint was employed in Indian as a means to darken and thicken hair – a practice that perhaps originated in Ancient Egyptian medicine, where cardamom and fenugreek seeds were usually ground fine and mixed with henna to elicit the same effects.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Amomum varieties are usually employed in much the same manner as the Elettaria variants, although the Chinese liberally employ black cardamom in the creation of alcoholic or alcohol-based tonics and potions. In the country however, black cardamom is typically ground into a paste and mixed with honey or some other sweet syrup and given to individuals who suffer from bronchitis or asthma. This same syrup may also be employed as a temporary disinfectant for wounds, or as an anti-gangrene and antibacterial remedy for open wounds and injuries rendered by bladed weaponry prior to, and after suturing or cauterisation, although very strong decoctions of black cardamom employed for the medication of bandages are more convenient. Black cardamom, when mixed with tea (usually the ‘red’ (black) or oolong varieties) is typically drunk after meals to help with digestion and to aid in nutrient absorption. Drunk by itself, or mixed with lu rong (prepared deer antler, usually of the Cervus sika species) and don sen (Campanumea pilosula) and orange or mandarin peel, it is typically given as a remedy for anaemia, overall weakness, and some wasting diseases (i. e. tuberculosis), and even malaria. [7]

Related:  10 Herbs For Pain Relief

Modern studies have discovered that cardamom may also be beneficial in lowering blood-pressure as well as managing some types of diabetes, especially diabetes mellitus. Due to its capacity to improve the assimilation of nutrients and to hasten the metabolic rate, cardamom has now been incorporated into some diet or weight-loss beverages. Its association for remedying anaemia has also proven it to be an excellent supplement for individuals who suffer from heart-problems, as several active compounds found in the seed’s volatile oils not only help improve heart health by lowering cholesterol levels, it also prevents the possibility of blood clots by improving circulation and ‘blood quality’.

The whole or ground seeds, when allowed to steep in oil, are useful for the treatment of topical dermatitis, allergies, and fungal infections. When combined with warming spices or herbs that improve circulation, the macerated oil may be employed for the purposes of massage, effectively remedying minor aches and pains associated with arthritis or rheumatism, or otherwise boosting hair growth and scalp health by improving circulation and curing topical fungal-based ailments such as dandruff. [8] Likewise, the essential oil which is obtained from the distillation of ground cardamom seeds possesses the same properties, albeit in a more concentrated state. The essential oil of cardamom was an essential ingredient in many ancient perfumes, and was quite popular in Ancient Egypt and Rome for its warm, slightly floral aroma which was believed to incite lust and act as a natural aphrodisiac when smelled.

Tinctures made of pure cardamom are rare, although alcoholic beverages that contain cardamom as an integral ingredient, or an aromatic and flavouring additive is commonplace, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Medicinally, these ‘flavoured liquors’ help to boost the immunity, improve digestion, purify and tonify the blood, and increase vigour depending on the constitution or formulation. Outside of the realm of alternative medicine, cardamom is generally incorporated into alcoholic beverages solely for the purposes of flavouring or artisanal flair. Such beverages may contain only minute amounts of cardamom or its essential oils, and thus may, or might not possess any valuable medicinal property.

Cardamom seeds, when ground very finely may even be smoked, either by itself or mixed with tobacco or other smokable substances. It is usually inhaled to provide quick relief for nasal congestion, asthma, or bronchitis. It may be mixed with spices such as cloves, or herbs like basil as a substitute for mentholated tobacco, or otherwise mixed with tobacco and smoked in pipes or hookahs for flavour and added aesthetic appeal.

Cardamom – Esoteric Uses And Lore

The esoteric and occultic use of cardamom dates back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians who burnt the dried seeds as a type of incense, both by itself, or in combination with resinous substances, herbs, and spices in their altars. In modern magickal practice as well as hoodoo and voodoo, cardamom seeds are typically carried in juju bags alongside other ‘love-inviting’ herbs or spices to help attract potential lovers, or to incite lust and desire. Ground seeds may be incorporated into both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to help incite desire, increase libido, or elicit lust. [9] Within the collective body of shamanic practices and some schools of ceremonial magick, cardamom seeds are employed more for purifications and protection – either burnt as incense or housed in medicine pouches – as the physical properties of the spice is noted for its ability to rejuvenate and cleanse the body. [10] In traditional esoteric medicine, cardamom was one of the main ingredients of the legendary substance called mithridatium or theriake. Said to have been concocted by Mithradates VI, sovereign of Pontus, it consisted of some fifty-four to sixty ingredients, of which cardamom was mentioned. [11][12] This remedy, detailed by many ancient herbals such as Aulus Cornelius Celsus’s De Medicina, was said to cure a person of an assortment of ills, as well as act as a universal antidote to any and all poisons.

Cardamom – Contraindications And Safety

Because cardamom is typically employed as a culinary spice, it is considered relatively safe for general use, although it mustn’t be consumed in large amounts in its raw (that is, unheated or untreated) form. Pregnant women should be advised to steer clear of potent decoctions of cardamom, as well as excessive consumption of cardamom-flavoured or imbued alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, as its emmenagogue properties may cause accidental miscarriage. The essential oil of cardamom, while therapeutic and beneficial in very minute amounts, must never be consumed undiluted, nor consumed regularly. Moderate to large amounts of orally ingested essential oil may be detrimental to one’s health, so extreme caution is advised when employing its essential oil in any medicinal recipe which calls for oral ingestion. Likewise, the essential oil of cardamom may be an allergenic to some individuals, especially those with very sensitive skin, so proper dilution in a base-oil is necessary prior to topical application to avoid contact dermatitis and other such complications.

Names of Cardamom, Past and Present

Chinese: bai dou kou / doukou guoshi / tsaoko
Japanese: karudamon (transliteration of ‘cardamom’)
Malayalam: elakkay / elakkai
Sanskrit: ela / ellka
Hindi: ilaychi / ilaichi
Arabic: hayn / hyl aswd / habbu-al-han
Aramaic: hemema (dubious reliability)
French: cardamome / cardamome noire / cardamome verte
Italian: cardamomo
Spanish: cardamomo / cardomom
Filipino: kardamono (adapted from the Spanish ‘cardamomo‘)
Greek (ancient): kadamija / kardamomon
English: cardamom / green cardamom / black cardamom / hill cardamom / winged cardamom / white cardamom / brown cardamom (other nomenclatures exist for both variants)
Latin (esoteric): cardamomum / cardamomi fructus / ailum
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Elettaria cardamomum (True Cardamom) / Amomum cardamomum (Black Cardamom)

Infographic Image Sources:

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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