Cardamom is widely used in Indian dishes—sweets as well as savouries—and is popular in Scandinavia for flavouring breads and cakes, notably Christmas cakes. In Asian and Middle Eastern cookery, cardamom is often used in desserts, and added to coffee and tea to enhance their fragrance. All the flavouring is in the tiny black seeds, and only a small quantity is required to impart their unique, fresh lemony taste.
In traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, cardamom has long been valued as a treatment for a range of digestive and respiratory disorders, as well as malaria. It is known to be strongly antiseptic, and can be chewed like gum to treat mouth and gum infections, and to freshen the breath.1 Cardamom is also thought to calm intestinal peristalsis, inhibit stomach ulcers, and reduce inflammation and cancer cell proliferation in the large intestines,2 which supports its traditional use as a warming, soothing digestive remedy to relieve colic. Some people find that cardamom can also ease acid reflux.
Sometimes known as the 'queen of spice', true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is one of the world's most valued and expensive spices, only surpassed in price by vanilla and saffron.
The precious green seedpods come from certain varieties of the Elettaria genus of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). However, buying true cardamom can be confusing as other, related cardamoms from the Amomum and Aframomum genera, which also belong to the ginger family, are available too.
These latter seeds have a strong camphor-like, smoky cardamom taste, partly because, traditionally, they are dried over open fires. The stronger-flavoured varieties are widely used in Chinese, Vietnamese and African cooking, but are also sold as cheap substitutes for the more highly valued and aromatic green Elettaria cardamoms.
Buying and storing
Cardamom is available as whole pods, loose seeds and in powder form. The seeds quickly lose the intensity of their flavour once the pods are opened, so it's always best to buy whole pods and extract the seeds as required. Each pod contains 10-20 tiny, highly aromatic, dark brown or black seeds, which smell sharp and lemony.
NOTE: The seeds of seven whole cardamom pods are equivalent to 1 tsp of ground cardamom.
For centuries, ginger has been taken to ease rheumatic complaints, and modern evidence confirms it has anti-inflammatory effects and may also lower blood pressure.6 It can aid slimming if taken as a hot drink with food because, as well as giving a sense of fullness, it enhances the thermic effects of food, so reducing feelings of hunger. Widely used as a digestive aid, ginger can also be effective for motion sickness and nausea.7 It makes a warming drink and is thought to improve blood circulation.
Black cumin (Bunium persicum)
Black cumin is often confused with kalonji (nigella seed/Nigella sativa), which also has medicinal properties. The latter, known as black seed, Kashmiri cumin, gov-zira or kala zeera, is synonymous with (or very closely related to) Bunium bulbocastanum, also known as the great pignut or earth chestnut.
Black cumin seeds are ridged and similar to caraway seeds in shape, but are longer and narrower. The plant, like caraway, is a member of the parsley family (Apiaceae), and is native to the mountains of Central Asia, where it can be found on dry, exposed grassy slopes. Nowadays, it has become naturalized to parts of Southeastern Europe, Central and South Asia, and Northern India, where it is grown commercially, especially in Kashmir.
Black cumin is popular in Northern Indian, Arabian and Caucasian cuisine. Much valued in Moghul cooking (known for its heavy use of aromatic spices, dried fruit and rich sauces), black cumin adds a pleasant, slightly sweet, nutty flavour to dishes and drinks. It is one of the key ingredients in the traditional Bengali five-spice mixture panch phoron.
Rich in volatile oils such as p-menthane, terpinene and cuminaldehyde, studies show that black cumin has strong antihistaminic and bronchodilatory effects.3 Traditionally, the seeds have been used for relieving diarrhoea and indigestion,4 and black cumin tisanes have been shown to lower blood sugar, making it helpful in the management of type 2 diabetes and obesity.5 The essential oil has a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine for digestive problems, infections and, externally, for injuries, bruises and boils.
Buying and storing
As the taste of black cumin depends on the volatile oils contained in the seeds, it is advisable to buy whole seeds and grind them as needed to avoid any loss of flavour. Store the seeds in an airtight container and out of direct sunlight, and use within a year.
Preparation and cooking time: 1 hour
- 1-2 Tbsp coconut or vegetable oil
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1 handful whole almonds
- 1 handful cashew nuts
- 2 cardamoms
- 2 green chillies
- ½ tsp saffron strands
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp black cumin seeds
- 500 g/1 lb 2 oz mushrooms, chopped
- 300 g/10 oz potatoes
- 350 g/12 oz/1½ cups basmati rice
- 1 handful dried apricots
- 2.5-cm/1-inch root ginger, peeled, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 Tbsp lemon juice
- Sea salt
- Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a wok or large, heavy frying pan over high heat. Add the onions, almonds and cashews, and stir-fry until they just start to colour. Remove them from the pan and leave to one side.
- Grind all the spices together using a mortar and pestle or grinder.
- Return pan to heat, adding a little more oil if necessary, and add the mushrooms, potatoes, ground spices and a little salt. Add all the remaining ingredients and heat through, stirring continuously.
- Add 700 mL/24 fl oz/3 cups of water to cover all the ingredients and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down, cover and leave to simmer gently for about 20 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked, adding a little more water if required.
- Return the cooked onion and nuts to the pan, heat through and serve hot.
Variation: For a meat version, replace mushrooms with minced/ground beef, browning it before adding the potato.
Adapted from the book Healing Spices by Kirsten Hartvig (Nourish, an imprint of Watkins Publishing, 2016)