Plant Profile: Cardamom
Bai Dou Kou
Seed or whole dried fruit
Cardamom’s native home exists in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia and India. Here it grows best in monsoon territories nicknamed the Cardamom Hills but actually the Western Ghats, a mountain range paralleling India’s western coast. This region thick with exotic plant life produces spice herbs including coffee, vanilla, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom along with other medicinal plants. Although growing cardamom, even in a greenhouse is risky at best in my Northeastern United States, appreciating this herb’s botanical traits promotes a connection to it as a living plant not just a medicine and food. Cardamom grows perennially, enduring year after year. The leaves spread large, broad, sword-shaped and dark green up the stem shoot as high as 20 feet. A light green, oval shaped seedpod considered the fruit, yields the spice. Each seedpod has three chambers containing an aromatic, pungent seed. These seedpods mature over a 3-year period readying for harvest. They turn a light brown when dried then can be gently broken open. The small seeds are a dark, reddish-brown color and best opened just prior to use. A paper-like tissue surrounds each seed that can be gently removed or ground with the seed actually making the grind smoother. They crush easily with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder mixed with other herbs, but alone the seeds, a bit too small seem to just whirl around.
Buying cardamom as pods, either green or brown, promises intensity. Once ground, cardamom loses flavor and becomes perishable. It is best to grind the seeds just prior to use. The seedpods will last longer and can be stored for up to one year. To prepare cardamom from the seedpod, place in a mortar and pestle to gently crack the shell and expose the seed covered in a papery husk. Avoid cardamom that appears white. This bleached variety lacks intensity and medicinal activity. Horizon Herbs sells a 50g packet of dried pods grown sustainably in Zanzibar. Mountain Rose Herbs offers pods in 4oz, 8oz, and 1 pound packages, as well as ground cardamom. Cardamom essential oil is also available alone and as a blend with other aromatic oils. Several of Mountain Rose’s different chai tea blends contain cardamom. Herbalist & Alchemist sells cardamom tincture in 2oz and 8oz bottles. Amazon offers organic options from Indian food suppliers and even specialty food stores such as Williams-Sonoma sell jars of cardamom pods. For essential oils, Floracopeia, a company that focuses on producing ecologically responsible, high quality oils, retails a ½ ounce size bottle of cardamom essential oil. It is possible to buy all sorts of cardamom infused products online including syrups, honeys, and wines but I have not yet sampled any of these.
Traditional Chinese, Arabic, and Ayurvedic practitioners founded cardamom’s medicinal mark over 5000 years ago. Stimulating cardamom, a member of the ginger family shares its warming and aromatic traits. While not as hot as ginger, it is more florally fragrant. Also called Capalaga and Ilachi, the Latin cardamomom derives from the Greek word for Indian spice plant, kardamomom. There are actually three varieties: green, black, and Madagascar. Green cardamom is most commonly sought as a culinary spice and medicinal component. A recent study comparing black and green varieties showed that while both lowered blood pressure, black cardamom may be more protective for the liver and heart. Cardamom ranks among essential spices in Indian cuisine and is known as one of the most costly world spices behind saffron and vanilla, the queen married to pepper, the king of spices. The chemical composition of cardamom heavily weighs as volatile oils, including cineol, limonene, borneol, eucalyptol, pinene, sabinene, and camphor. Cardamom’s activity has been tested in animals to provide scientific support for traditional uses. One study confirmed unique phytochemicals in cardamom that stimulate peristalsis in the GI tract, decrease abdominal spasms, and lower blood pressure. Minerals such as manganese and iron are present, but the amount usually used would not make it a nutritional source. Generally, cardamom lends to sparing use because it is potent but also stimulating. As a food spice, cardamom’s safety is without question. If large amounts are used, it can be too stimulating and warming causing signs of overheating internally and externally. This is particularly important during pregnancy to avoid irritation and also for those with intolerance to spicy foods.
Cardamom stands up with taste, an important way to illuminate the energetics of this herb. The characteristics and properties of a plant are termed its energetics. Tasting herbs is a means to touch them, to feel their actions, to establish relationship with them. The descriptive words do not hold as much meaning as experiencing it on your tongue. Pungent is one of the big categories for taste energetics; put cardamom in your mouth and you will know the taste of pungent. The spicy, powerful flavor has its own medicinal significance distinguished as warming, stimulating, and drying. Cardamom is a pungent tasting herb with descriptions like smoky, lemony citrus, a bit of wood, a touch of sweet, and a hint of flower. The warming rich flavor is most potent right after removal of the seed from the pod. Distinctive and pleasant in small amounts, adding too much cardamom can overwhelm any dish as well as extenuate the energetics, the warming, stimulating and drying effects. A little cardamom goes a long way.
Cardamom allows itself to be revealed through its fragrance. Herbs containing a high concentration of volatile oils brandish a distinct and strong smell. Aromatic to say the least, cardamom has a sharp but gentle odor, more floral than its ginger relative. A bit of spice, a touch of sweet, woody undertones, and a sensual element lend cardamom a rich, exotic, warming fragrance. It has been used for its cleansing scent as a small addition to sachets, perfumes, air fresheners, and cleaning products. Scent and aroma, key herbal energetic elements assist with matching herbs to an individual person or situation. Do you crave the smell of chai?
There is something mystical about cardamom, tied up in romance, warmth, and ethnic cuisine. Ancient medical practices all hold a place for cardamom. Food as medicine cuisines gently fuse it into their mix. Aromatherapy essential oil blends incorporating cardamom transport back to pleasant days of incense. In African, Asian, and Arabic cultures hospitality begins with the offering of a beverage. Special blends of teas and coffee welcome visitors in almost any situation. Cardamom coffee holds a particularly significant place in this custom. The visitor must know that the more cups accepted the deeper gratitude for the hospitality received. Cardamom takes its place with aromatic spices considered as aphrodisiac. Nicholas Culpepper, a 17th century English physician and herbalist, who put emphasis on the connection of plants and astronomy, wrote that cardamom was associated with Venus, perhaps binding it to love charms. Ancient Egyptians used it as incense and perfumes for its exotic and sensual attraction. Cardamom may be specifically indicated because of its ability to freshen breath prior to a kiss. Wrigley’s even produced a gum flavored with cardamom that was later removed from sale due to the determination that a false claim was made about its intensity and breath freshening ability. Traditional use did not serve as evidence, but it could have.
Culinary and Cooking
Distinguishable yet subtle, cardamom balances, supports, and blends with other culinary ingredients. Primarily cardamom wraps all over Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines in both savory and sweet dishes. A dose of both black and green cardamom fuse into garam masala, the Indian spice blend staple for curries whether meat, vegetarian or rice. Together with black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, and cumin the name garam masala speaks its impact on food. The Hindi word garam means hot; masala a mixture of spices. Garam masala is more than just flavoring. Ayurveda uses spiced food as medicine to elevate warmth in the body. Indian cooking often calls for spices to be heated in oil as a first preparation step, which releases the oils, enhances flavor and liberates medicinal abilities. The spice blends are then mixed into curries, condiment mixtures referred to as pickles, and desserts. Other masalas, such as masala chai, blend into teas and coffee. Cardamom coffee called gawha symbolizes a special hospitality sign. Cardamom’s history tells of Viking merchants traveling through Russia, trading spices and becoming enamored with cardamom, taking it home with them to become a Scandinavian pastry and bread specialty. In baking cardamom enhances flavor especially with chocolate, cloves, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, cashews, coconut, and almonds. Mulled wine, a holiday and winter season warmer also uses spice blends containing cardamom.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Herbalists rarely use cardamom as a single herb remedy not only because its strength can be overpowering, it also lends itself ideal for the herbal formula concept. A pinch of cardamom goes the distance. Intermingling with other spices to blend flavor and partner in impact has always been its best use. While taste often hinders acceptance of herbs, this quite not the case for well-known spice mixtures used in chai blends or ethnic curries where cardamom blends with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, star anise, ginger. Perhaps the most outstanding employment for cardamom functions as a carminative. This action relieves digestive gas causing flatulence and/or abdominal bloating. The natural energetic heating ability to warm interior cold is responsible for much of its medicinal capacity. Warmth stimulates appetite digestion and metabolism. By increasing peristalsis and production of hydrochloric acid (HCL) critical to our body’s ability to begin the digestive process, cardamom can play a key role in the quest for improved gastrointestinal function. When digestive fire runs cold a feeling of fullness even without overeating, nausea, diarrhea and constipation take hold. The warmth of cardamom is a gentle welcome heat, not fiery like a pepper. Traditional practices like TCM view cardamom as having the ability to move energy or qi and dissolve dampness that slows down digestion, alleviating bloating and gas. This will also help relieve pressure in the chest from indigestion. Additionally, cardamom is strongly antibacterial which combined with its damp dissolving ability lends to traditional use for treating food poisoning, bacterial diarrhea or dysentery. Antimicrobial actions are in fact a strong suit for cardamom. Antifungal constituents such as carvone and caryophyllene fight fungal infections such as candida overgrowth especially in the upper respiratory tract, thrush, yeast infections, athlete’s foot, and candidiasis skin conditions. It can be used as a topical application for the skin and also taken internally. Bacteria that cause sore throats and laryngitis do not stand a chance against a mixed tea blend of cardamom, sage and thyme, which clear and soothe at the same time. Traditionally, cardamom seeds were used for oral and mouth care, chewed to freshen breath and inhibit bacteria that cause plaque formation. In the spirit of food as medicine, Cardamom rice porridge taken by the spoonful throughout the day has been used traditionally for appetite loss and anorexia related to illness. Research studies reinforce traditional practices using cardamom to lower blood pressure, promote restful sleep, and act as an antioxidant.
It is best to freshly powdered cardamom seedpods before making into a tea infusion. Use ¼ to ½ teaspoon cardamom powder with 8 ounces hot water and steep covered for 15-20 minutes
Often cardamom is prepared with other herbs in a decoction. If this is the method of preparation for tea, simmer the other herbs first and add cardamom toward the end to avoid destroying the sensitive volatile oils. Often the decoction is most effective if taken while still warm.
Begin by preparing a strong cardamom tea using ¼ cup dried cardamom pods and 1 cup of hot water. It is best to powder the cardamom pods. Combine in small saucepan, bring just to simmer, remove from heat, cover and steep for 15 minutes. Add 1 cup of sugar (syrup recipes often call for 2 cups sugar to 1 cup water but makes an extremely sweet blend, do what you prefer). Turn heat to low and bring to simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer over low heat for approximately 20 minutes until thickened. Stores in refrigerator for 2-3 days.
Grind seeds and pericarps, the papery seed cover, just prior to use to retain optimal potency. Ten pods equals approximately 1½ teaspoons when powdered.
Making mulled wine leaves room for individual taste and preference and there is no one exact way. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and orange peel usually are prepared as a syrup (mixing in a saucepan with equal parts water and sugar), then red wine and port or other sweeter wine added. Most often reserved for imparting holiday spirit, mulled wine traditions add or subtract spices and use different types of wines.
The precise extraction method for cardamom is one part dried, powdered cardamom to four parts menstrum (60 percent alcohol, 40 percent water). Pour liquid menstrum over cardamom into a dark glass bottle. Allow maceration for up to 6 weeks in a cool dark place.
Made through steam distillation, concentrated essential oil has many uses as an addition to salves, balms, massage oil blends and liniments. As an addition to aromatherapy blends, cardamom essential oil provides stimulation of the mind to improve concentration and reduce drowsiness while overall also imparting a general sense of calm. Cardamom essential oil must always be diluted prior to topical application and is not meant for oral ingestion.