The Beauty of Cardamom
What a curious thing they were, these tiny paper-puff bundles that my father kept in the cupboard next to the long-handled pot that he used to make Armenian coffee.
Dad always placed one cardamom pod at the bottom of his cup before pouring in the dark, foamy liquid. I remember the heady scent of this concoction as well as the look of serenity on my father’s face as he sipped it.
All coffee was off limits to me then, so I had no idea what to make of this mysterious ingredient, which he referred to by the Arabic name kakula. But I figured it was sugary-sweet because that’s how I imagined anything delicious, as this so clearly was. Every once in a while, my father even popped one into his mouth. He told me his father had done the same thing, and that it soothed the stomach.
While I couldn’t figure out how to sneak a sip of coffee, I ferreted my way into the cupboard and bit into a cardamom pod. It hadn’t occurred me that the outer coating that looked like paper would taste like … well, paper. What was inside wasn’t sweet, at least not to a kid. It seemed spicy, peppery, more like medicine than candy.
The best thing to come out of the experience was that it delayed my coffee initiation by a few years. I wanted no part of any drink associated with anything so revolting.
Coffee and I eventually became very close, but mostly I guzzled garden-variety American coffee with no flavoring other than a teaspoon of sugar. Cardamom remained a mystery until I realized that coffee goes better with cake —in particular, coffee cake. There was something intriguing — and downright compelling — about a very unusual taste in the crumb topping.
I wondered aloud what it was and got the shocking answer: cardamom. How could that awful stuff of my childhood misadventure taste so good now? Stranger still, how could American bakers know enough to associate this Old Country flavor with coffee?
What I didn’t know then was that cardamom has been a worldwide phenomenon for as long as people have been paying attention to such things. Exactly where it originated is a bit hazy, as there are different varieties suited to different climates, but just about every culture that discovers cardamom embraces it.
According to the book Cardamom: the Genus Elettaria, nearly the entire ancient world was abuzz with news of cardamom’s delights as well as its medicinal benefits. References appear in ancient Indian texts, and it was an essential part of both the gardens and medicine cabinets of Babylon and Assyria.
Dioscorides, the Greek doctor who wrote the pioneering drug guide Materia Medica, specifically cited cardamom from Armenia and gave instructions for choosing samples that were heavily scented and slightly bitter. The authors conclude from his description that the cardamom of Asia Minor was distinct from the cardamom known to ancient India.
These days, cardamom is again trendy, which is sort of amusing if you know that the trend is a few thousand years old. Robyn offers some useful information on this most alluring spice.
All varieties of cardamom are members of the ginger family. Cardamom pods are about the size of cranberries, each containing about 20 seeds. Cardamom’s pungent flavor is generally described as floral, and spicy-sweet. A little bit goes a long way, which is true of cardamom itself. So much a part of so many cuisines, cardamom can’t be associated with any one region, much less one culture. It’s as widely used in Scandinavian cooking as in East Indian.
The demand and variety of uses keep increasing, which helps make cardamom more expensive than cinnamon, nutmeg and most other common spices. It’s sold in the pod, as seeds, or in ground form. Its flavor is best preserved in the pod, but the seeds can be quite robust if ground fresh. It’s best to buy ground cardamom in small quantities because it loses its punch quickly.
Cardamom works well in baked goods (cookies, cakes), in coffee (even American coffee), in curries, citrus salads, in fall and winter squash recipes, lentil recipes, and with poultry and meat (generally as a rub).
Here are several recipes which include the fragrant spice cardamom:
A very simple Cardamom Rub recipe…
3 Tbsp. ground cardamom
2 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 Tbsp. ground allspice
1 Tbsp. ground black pepper
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container. This will retain its freshness for up to 2 months.
Use this dry rub on lamb, chicken, or a meat of your choosing, before roasting.
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Hassa, a recipe traditionally served at christenings, combines exotic flavors and colorful candies. This recipe was recreated by my aunt Arpie Vartanesian and served at each child’s christening in our family.
As delicious as hassa is, it is also dangerous to eat. A warning should be issued when serving it. WARNING: eat hassa with a very small spoon, and do not breathe inward as you consume this. The powdery ingredients can fill your sinuses; serious coughing may occur!
1 lb. unsalted chick peas, roasted and ground into a powder*
1/3 lb. candy-covered chick peas (set some aside for decoration) *
1/3 lb. candy-covered almonds (set some aside for decoration) *
1/4 lb. candy-covered fennel seeds *
A dash of nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground anise seed
1/2 tsp. ground fennel seed
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom*
1/2 cup powdered sugar
* The starred ingredients can be found in most Middle Eastern grocery stores; the rest should be available in supermarkets.
1. Grind chick peas in a blender or food processor. Sift and re-grind any coarse pieces until powdery. Place in a large bowl.
2. Add the remaining ingredients to the powdered chick peas, and mix thoroughly.
3. Top with candies that were set aside for decoration.
NOTE: Spices can be adjusted according to your taste.
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Yield: 4 to 5 servings
6 navel oranges (or whatever combination of oranges you like)
1 cup strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced (You can use your favorite berry in this.)
1 to 2 Tbsp. honey (amount used depends on the sweetness of the fruit)
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (lime juice can be used, also)
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1. Working over a bowl, peel and section the oranges. Save any juice that collects in the bowl; it will be used to prepare a sauce for the fruit.
2. Place the orange segments and sliced strawberries in a serving bowl. Set aside.
3. In a saucepan, combine the juice from the oranges, honey, lemon juice, and cardamom. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Cool.
4. Pour sauce over the orange-berry mixture. Gently toss to coat fruit with sauce.
5. Chill or serve immediately.