Spice shop in Sri Lanka © 2007 McKay Savage / CC BY 2.0
In the 1995 screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (pub. 1811), when young Margaret asks the well-travelled Colonel Brandon what the East Indies are like, he replies mysteriously, “The air is full of spices.”
What an evocative image! Shimmering caravans on sunbaked sand, crowded souqs and narrow alleyways, mint tea poured from a brass samovar, smoky incense curling like cobras under dimly-lit tiled domes. By Austen’s time, the Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes which for centuries had brought precious fabrics and gems, spices, tea and coffee from Asia and Africa to Europe – was already a legend. One can imagine the pleasure of monied Mrs. Jennings (for, surely, only the wealthiest could afford such extravagances as tea and olives) as she opened a new packet of oolong, breathing deeply of its exotic fragrance before locking it safely away in her rosewood caddy.
One of the Silk Road spices, cardamom, has intrigued me as much as Margaret’s wonder of far-flung places. Even the name is mysterious, and I was never quite sure just what it was or how it could be used.
Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of several plants in the ginger family, native to India and other parts of Asia. There are two main types: true or green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and black cardamom (two species of Amomum). White cardamom is made by bleaching the green variety. The plants were known to the ancient Greeks, and India was the largest producer until their introduction to Guatemala by a coffee grower in the early 20th century. That country is now the spice’s greatest exporter, followed by India, and cardamom is the world’s third-most expensive spice by weight after vanilla and saffron.
How to Use: Cardamom’s strong, aromatic, resinous, often smoky flavour is unlike that of any other spice, although it can impart a coolness similar to mint. It is not bitter, and – if you can bear the intensity – individual pods may be chewed like gum to freshen the breath. A flavour multitasker, cardamom can be either a sweet or savoury additive to food, drinks and seasoning blends such as masala and curries; it works particularly well with cinnamon and cloves. It’s a staple in Indian cookery and is added to coffee, tea and sweets in the Middle East. Scandinavian baking recipes such as the Jule bread, Julekake, often call for cardamom. It’s also an ingredient in gin and herbal teas. A little goes a long way with these seeds! Keep pods whole until you’re ready to use them, as they lose their flavour quickly when ground. To use exotic cardamom for yourself, try this easy-to-make, warming spiced tea:
Traditional Masala Chai
Chai or cha is the word for tea in many Eurasian languages, and masala means “mixed spice”. Originating in India, this aromatic beverage is made by brewing black tea with Karha*, a mixture of fragrant herbs and spices with a base of green cardamom. The original tea was Assam; use whatever strong black tea you have on hand. Thick buffalo milk is used in India, but any type will do (the thicker the better, but don’t use cream). Chai is served in small glasses with cardamom seeds in the bottom as a symbol of esteem for your guests!
2 ¼ cups water
¼ cup loose leaf black tea (or 4 – 5 teabags)
5 green cardamom pods, pressed with the back of a spoon until they crack
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole star anise
¼ cup sugar (I found this overwhelmingly sweet; use less if desired; honey is a good substitute)
2 cups milk (whole works best)
Add tea, cardamom, cinnamon and anise to water and bring to a boil, simmering for at least 5 minutes until the tea is dark and has reduced. Strain out the spices and add the sugar. Stir in the milk. To serve, place a couple of cardamom pods (reuse the ones you brewed) in the bottom of a small glass and pour in the chai. Makes 4 to 12 servings, depending on the size of the glass.
* Customize your karha by adding any of the following: ginger, allspice, nutmeg, black peppercorns or fennel seeds.