Cardamom: The Spice of Luxury

"It is said that a poor man in Saudi Arabia would rather forgo his rice than give up his cardamom," writes Frederic Rosengarten Jr. in "The Book of Spices" (Pyramid Books). Hyperbole, perhaps (though it's said that the farther into the desert you go, the more cardamom seeds and the fewer coffee beans the Bedouins put in their coffee), but the saying indicates the high regard in which much of the world holds this exquisitely fragrant spice.

Cardamom is a mainstay in the cooking of India, Sri Lanka, Scandinavia and the Middle East; in Ethiopia, which has its own native strains of cardamom, it's the most characteristic spice. Although largely ignored in this country as recently as 10 years ago, it is gaining popularity rapidly.

Cardamom is the seed pod of a tropical shrub related to ginger. In this country we're likely to see the two varieties native to southern India: green and black. Green cardamom--a pale-green-to-straw-colored pod the size of a coffee bean with a lightly ribbed surface--is the more common and aromatic of the two. It has an intense, almost floral aroma that lends a haunting perfume to any dish it encounters.

Black cardamom is larger and darker than the green variety, being the size and shape of a plum pit. Its aroma is less exuberant, but there's no mistaking its intense smoky, nutty flavor. Both types of cardamom contain 15 to 20 angular, small black seeds.

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Green cardamom is sold in pod form, seed form and ground, and is generally used in cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. You can buy it at any supermarket. Black cardamom comes mainly in pod form and is generally used in savory dishes, like rice biryani , and in the famous Indian spice mixture, garam masala. Look for black cardamom in Indian and Pakistani markets.

Green cardamom is the ingredient that gives Arabic coffee its distinctive fragrance. (It goes by the name of hal in the Middle East.) It also figures prominently in Scandinavian desserts, such as brune kager (crisp Danish cookies), flotevafler (Norwegian sour cream waffles) and kermakakku (Finnish pound cake).

But this versatile spice also goes well in meat dishes, like northern Indian moghul-style chicken. A Greek friend makes a sort of Middle East beef stroganoff, using cardamom in place of paprika.

For centuries, cardamom has been treasured for its medicinal properties. The Romans gobbled it at the end of a meal to ward off post-prandial indigestion.

"Cardomomum helpyth ayenst wamblyng (nausea) and indygnacyon (indigestion)," opined a 14th-Century herbalist. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, cardamom is believed to help eliminate fat and cure urinary tract ailments. Pharmaceutical companies still use the spice to sweeten bitter medications.

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In the 19th Century, boozers would nibble cardamom seeds to disguise the smell of liquor on their breath. In India, cardamom seeds are chewed after a meal to aid digestion. Whole cardamom pods can be added to applesauce, rice pudding and hot mulled wine and cider. To add an interesting flavor to coffee, add a cardamom pod to the beans just before grinding.

Even for uses that call for ground cardamom, buy whole cardamom seeds. When you grind them yourself in a spice mill or coffee grinder, the resulting powder will have a lot more flavor than commercial ground cardamom, which usually contains ground pod casings as well as seeds. If you can, buy the pale-green pods sold at spice shops and ethnic markets; the whitish pods sold in the supermarket are sometimes bleached, which can adulterate the flavor.

When you shop, you'll probably notice that, ounce for ounce, cardamom is one of the world's most expensive spices. Fortunately, it is so aromatic that a little goes a long way.

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In this country cardamom is generally used in desserts, but in India and the Near East the fragrant spice is often paired with meat. This recipe was inspired by one of my cooking students, Dina Hannah.

CARDAMOM BEEF WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS

1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin or sirloin

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup nonfat yogurt

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon Cognac

1 1/2 teaspoons flour

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large or 2 medium onions, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Salt

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or green onions for garnish

Trim off fat or sinew from meat. Cut beef into long, thin strips. Place meat in mixing bowl along with garlic, cardamom and pepper to taste. Marinate 15 minutes.

Combine yogurt, mustard, Cognac and flour in small bowl and whisk until smooth.

Heat olive oil in large non-stick skillet. Add onions and cook, stirring often, over medium-low heat until deep-golden-brown, 10 minutes. Add sugar after 5 minutes to help onions brown.

Increase heat to high and add beef to onions. Cook until seared on all sides, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in yogurt mixture and simmer 1 minute. Adjust seasonings to taste. Sprinkle beef with chives. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

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