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Tantalising Cardamom

Tantalising Cardamom
As autumn advances Zoe Perrett takes comfort in the warmth of cardamom. 

As the mercury drops still further, the elusive, haunting aroma of cardamom scents everything from sweets to stews. Meanwhile Kumily Village, Kerala echoes with calls from the Cardamom Auction Centre, where the spice is a deservedly revered commodity- the third most expensive in the world.
This fragrant member of the zingibereaceae family is said to have thrived in gardens of the King of Babylon in 720 BC, and spread worldwide via Egyptian spice routes. The best is considered to hail from native Kerala.
Cardamom's rich and fragrant nature translates to its history. It thrives in the romantically-named Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats, rising majestically from the Malabar Coast, although today Guatamala is a rival for the largest crop yield. This variety finds favour in the famed Bedu Arab's cardamom coffee- 'kahwe hai'/'gahwa'- as plantations here often mix the two crops to stunning effect.
Indeed, cardamom's pervasive menthol/ginger scent is a long time favourite in a range of beverages. Pleasingly sweet-and-spicy, it's vital in Indian thandai. Scandinavians use it to flavour Aquavit, whilst scarcely less potent is an Indian boiled beverage of milk and cardamom- thought to relieve impotence! Here, cardamom water is used as a remedy for sore throats, whilst spiced tea of the Moguls and Persians is considered an effective headache remedy.
This is just one reference to the spice's complex role in medicine. Ayurvedic doctors consider it a flatulence reliever, appetite stimulant and digestive which also cools the body, and texts from 4 BC suggest it as fat remover and skin improver. Accordingly, it's often included in post-meal 'supari' chewing mixtures- with the additional benefit of sweetening the breath.
Both ancient Greeks and Romans used cardamom as medicament, with Apicius prescribing it for overindulgence, and a mention in Nero's aid Dioscorides' Materia Medica. In The Arabian Nights, cardamom's said to have aphrodisiac properties- a belief that persists in today's Middle East.
Superficially, cardamom has an historic cosmetic role. In the Indian text Brihad Samhita, Vrahmihira proposes a concoction to be used as a body powder with musk and camphor. The Greeks and Romans also subscribed to the notion, mixing cardamom with wax for perfume.
Much symbolism is attached to cardamom- a must in worship of Hindu deities Lord Siva, Saraswari, and Kali. Blind Indian poet Hashmi tells how one must include a pod with an invite- a tradition until recent times. Scholar Push Pesh Panth suggests offering cardamom on a skyward-facing palm indicates supplication- accordingly, its acceptance shows joy at the gesture of intimacy.
Further to the spice as a symbol of affluence, it's often coated in silver leaf. Historically, Moghul emperors would carry pods in tiny silver boxes to chew- and today's rich and famous concur. In Lucknow, silver coated seeds may be dipped in tobacco water- consumption indicative of sophistication. There's even a popular Hindi film song which states that a betel leaf containing both cardamom and cloves will impress a girl.
In the kitchen, cardamom finds widespread popularity in Indian, Indonesian, Scandinavian, German and Middle Eastern cuisines- second only in world popularity to black pepper. In 1356, French king John le Bon partook of the spice in Britain in captivity- yet it's scarcely mentioned in Western cuisine again until the rise of the British East India Co. in the 1800s. Viking discovery over 1000 years ago, meanwhile, lead to the spice becoming a Scandinavian favourite, particularly in Danish pastries.
Sweet dishes are a common favourite. Greek kourambiedes cookies are spiked with cardamom, and it provides characteristic flavour for 'pulla'- Finnish Christmas bread. Dutch use it to spice up spekulaas biscuits, whilst Norwegians indulge in 'fattigman'- deep-fried, sugared cardamom dough twists.
In Kerala and Sri Lanka, cardamom's use is almost exclusively in sweetmeats such as shrikhand or the festive kheer. A 1688 Rajasthani verse-recipe by Hashmi suggests grinding brittle-fried parathas with the spice and sugar. Hyderabadis use double the quantity of Northern counterparts- inclusion in a savoury dish denotes Persian heritage. Although the spice is considered cooling, it's a vital element in garam ('hot') masala. South East Asians ingeniously use young leaves as food wrappers.
In all its guises, cardamom never fails to tantalise.
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22 September 2011
By: Zoe Perrett
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