Spice: Black Cardamom
Cardamom is not a common addition to most home spice cabinets. It comes in two closely related varieties: the green (which most people will have at least tasted at some time or another), and the black variety, which is larger and far less well known in western cookery. Green cardamom, although not widely recognized, is used in quite a few bakery products, especially in Scandinavia, and it is likely in these types of products that most people will have encountered it.
When I was growing up, green cardamom was used quite frequently in our house, especially in my father’s biryanis, but I was probably in my thirties before I discovered the black variety. It is unfortunate that that this spice is not very well known because it has a unique taste that works nicely in quite a number of different preparations…
Green Cardamom (genus Elettaria) and Black Cardamom (genus Amomum) are both members of the ginger family. They are closely related, as such, but the flavor of each is very different. Both varieties are most closely associated with the cuisines of India and Pakistan but it wasn’t until I read Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent Sichuan cookery book ‘Land of Plenty’ that I discovered it is also used in western Chinese cookery, where it is known as 草果 (pinyin: cǎoguǒ). The Chinese name, if you are interested, translates as ‘grass fruit’.
The pods of Black Cardamom have a very thick, woody hull and, when cracked open, reveal a mass of tiny blackish-brown seeds held together by a rather sticky resinous material. The aroma, which is very much reflected in the taste, will be instantly familiar to those who use ‘Vick’s Vaporub’, or other similar products, as it is heavily redolent with the distinctive smell of camphor.
If you taste the seeds raw from the hull it will be the camphor quality that dominates. However, notes of pine resin also come through and there is also a woody, smokiness to the overall taste that comes, apparently from the practice of drying the pods over hot wood fires. It probably sounds, I am sure, that this strongly flavored spice might be actively unpleasant in most culinary uses but, in fact, the strength of the camphor diminishes considerably when cooked and the smokiness comes through very nicely when used with many meats. Indeed, if used with some discretion, the spice can add a pleasant wood-smoke quality in the same way that bacon can when included in stews and chowders.
It is also possible to buy Black Cardamom in a powdered form, as you see above, but I would counsel against this. The powder you see above is already a good two years old and I am afraid that it has completely lost its potency and is ready to be discarded. Most home cooks will only use this spice occasionally, and a little goes a very long way, so it is far better just to buy the whole pods and grind the seeds as needed instead. The pods I have (which can also be used whole in some dishes) are just as old as my powder and, as far as I can detect, are every bit as potent as when I first purchased them.
In India and Pakistan, the spice is added to a number of blends, especially some versions of Garam Masala. It tends to be used with meats more than vegetables and is especially good with lamb. In Chinese cookery, it is mostly limited to the west, and is sometimes added to certain long-simmered dishes along with chili. I have used it a number of times in hotpot style preparations containing beef and daikon and I recently used it, to pleasant effect, in a dish of Beef with Cumin and Scallions.
If you would like to try using this interesting spice in a simple dish just to see what it is like, try this easy recipe:
Rice with Black Cardamom
- 1 cup long-grained rice
- 2 cups water
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ cup finely chopped onion
- 1 – 3 pods Black Cardamom
Extract the seeds from one or two cardamom pods or, alternatively lightly crush the hulls of 3 pods so that they crack but do not break entirely. Melt the butter over moderate heat in a saucepan and sauté the onion just until it starts to brown a little. Add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated and they begin to toast slightly, and then add the salt, the cardamom (seeds or pods) and the water. As son as the water begins to boil, cover the pot and simmer on low for about twenty minutes. Fluff the rice and serve.
In future ‘Spicery’ posts, I will be featuring some masalas and other blends using this interesting spice. Recently, I came across some ideas for using the ground seeds in Barbecue rubs and I am very interested in trying this myself. It has also occurred to me that, given the camphor quality of this spice I may be able to use it along with woodchips for making a version of the Sichuan ‘Tea and Camphor Smoked Duck’. Thus far, I have been totally unable to locate camphor wood to try this dish and it will be interesting to see if Black Cardamom might work instead. Naturally, I will keep you posted on the results of any experiments in this regard…