By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
Now that cooler days are upon us, it is time to bring out the spices! Cardamom is one of my all-time favorites and makes a grand entrance in my kitchen as soon as fall arrives. I am not alone in my love of this little green pod -- for ages cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) has been one of humankind’s most well-loved spices, used in cuisines and materia medicas around the world.
A close cousin to ginger and turmeric (all in the Zingiberaceae family), cardamom is originally from the forests of southern India where it grows wild. It is now cultivated in tropical areas throughout the world. Beloved in many cultures, and often called “Grains of Paradise,” cardamom is one of the world’s most expensive spices, third after saffron and vanilla.
The use of cardamom has been documented as far back as the 4th century BC. Because of its sweet and pungent flavor, cardamom was the favored tooth cleanser and breath freshener of the Egyptians, who used it for dental hygiene. The Greeks and Romans had their own use for this spice and included it in their perfume formulations. (To this day cardamom is still a popular ingredient in many fine perfumes.) Even the Vikings cherished this small pod for its scent and flavor and ended up introducing it into Scandinavia, where it remains as a key ingredient in many pastries and cookies. In the Middle East and India, cardamom is an essential spice in many traditional dishes, used in curries, sweets, coffee and tea.
Historically, cardamom has been used as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, modern research has found it beneficial in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions such as impotence. The seed pod is also a mood elevator and has been found to be valuable in overcoming depression. I find that simply smelling a crushed cardamom pod can be uplifting. This is a good herb (or essential oil) to keep on hand during dark New England winters.
Cardamom is perhaps most famous as a stomachic and carminative herb, helping to calm digestive upsets and to promote and balance gastric juices. Ayurvedic doctors regarded it as a treatment for obesity, perhaps relying on its stimulating properties that move sluggish digestion. Modern practitioners use it for similar purposes to tone and support the digestive system. With the holidays coming up, including cardamom in dishes or beverages can certainly make big meals more festive and better digested.
How to use:
There are many delicious ways to use cardamom. Beyond its traditional usage in both savory and sweet dishes, cardamom is an essential addition to any chai tea blend. One of my favorite ways to make chai is with the following recipe that I have developed over several cold winters:
6 cardamom pods
1 tsp. black peppercorn
1-2 tsp. dried ginger root (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 tsp. dried orange peel
1/2 Tblsp. cinnamon bark (sweet or cassia)
1 Tblsp. burdock root
1 Tblsp. roasted dandelion root (roasted will yield a deeper, darker flavor)
1 Tblsp. roasted chicory root
1 Tblsp. astragalus root
First, grind together the cardamom, cloves and peppercorn in a mortar and pestle. This will help their flavor be dispersed throughout the whole tea. Combine these crushed pieces with the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. This will make about 5-6 servings of tea.
To brew the tea, add up to 1 Tblsp. of the chai blend per two cups of water in a small saucepan. Bring everything to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer covered at for least 20 minutes. Just be sure to keep an eye on the water level and don't let it evaporate too much. When it is as dark and spicy tasting as you would like, strain out the roots and add milk and honey to taste.
If this recipe seems too complicated, just try adding a few crushed cardamom pods to your black tea or coffee for a special treat.
You can also infuse cardamom in honey for something truly special. Add this honey into your coffee for an aromatic start to your day, or drizzle over desserts. Making an infused honey is simple:
Fill a small jar ¼ to ½ full of crushed cardamom seeds. Cover with honey, cap tightly and let sit for 2 to 6 weeks. I like to turn my honey jar upside down every few days so that the herb material can slowly move back and forth through the honey rather than congregate all at the top. To remove the cardamom (which is optional) you can gently heat the jar in a small water bath on the stove. Be careful not to heat the honey too much, just until it is runny enough to pour through a sieve.
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
Lad V. and Frawley D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs. Lotus Press.
Chevallier, A. (2000). Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Dorling Kindersley.
Wood, M. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal: A complete guide to old world medicinal plants. North Atlantic Books.
This Web site — Herbs and Botanicals — is for general health information only. This Web site is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.