Cardamom, The Queen of the Spice Jungle

Kautilya in his book, Arthashastra, quotes, “A green pearl on the banks of the river Periyar in the South-west mountains”. This green pearl is also known as the Queen of Spices, cardamom. A native to South India, cardamom grew in large amounts in the Western Ghats, so much so that the mountains were also known as Cardamom Hills.

Apart from its mention in the Arthashastra, cardamom finds mention in Amarakosha and in many Ayurvedic texts, including Charaka Samhitha. Cardamom was so precious that it was gifted during many functions. Cardamom is one among five spices that is used in Paan, a preparation with betel leaves. This preparation is known as Pancha Sugandha Thambula (five-fragrance Paan) and is mentioned in the work, Manasollasa, a 12th century Sanskrit text that covered topics on governance, ethics, economics, astrology, veterinary sciences, perfumery, food, sports, painting, poetry and more. 

The royal subjects in the court of the Malabar king traded cardamom with Arab merchants. Cardamom was established as a secondary crop after coffee in many agricultural estates in India during British rule. Cardamom was also taken with travellers and traders to Portugal, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, who set foot in South India. Romans and Greeks then traded cardamom with the Nordic countries such as Norway and Finland. 

Cardamom is rich in medicinal and aromatic properties and initially, due to certain climatic circumstances, cardamom was found in low quantities and is. This is one of the reasons why Kautilya called it a green pearl. Cardamom can, now, easily be grown and it grows throughout the year. 

Now let’s talk about the varieties of cardamom. Cardamom was classified on various factors, such as their location: Malabar and Mysore, of which the Mysore variety is more aromatic owing to the presence of lineol and limonene (aromatic compounds); based on the colour, flavour and aroma of the pods, they are classified into two types: Green and Black. Green cardamom has a very strong and intense flavour and a powerfully sweet-smelling aroma. Black cardamom on the other hand has a smoky flavour and has a coolness to it similar to that of mint. This is why in most countries, black cardamom is used as a mouth freshener as cardamom can keep bad breath at bay. Green cardamom is also used as a mouth freshener in India. 

Green cardamom can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes; black cardamom is best suited for savoury dishes. Cardamom is used in plenty of dishes belonging to a variety of cuisines ranging from Indian to Middle Eastern to Scandinavian. In India, green cardamom is used to make sweet dishes such as payasam / kheer, and puddings, and used in savoury dishes like biryani and other rice dishes. Green cardamom is added in chai to give a refreshing flavour. Apart from that, it is used in garam masala and spice blends along with many other spices.

In the Middle East, green cardamom dust is used in sugary dishes as well as for coffee and tea. Coffee and cardamom blend is used in many dishes.

The Scandinavian countries extensively use cardamom in their dishes. Finnish use it to make a sweet bread, Pulla. The Norwegian Christmas bread Julekake has cardamom as one of it’s key ingredients. In other Nordic countries, it is a favourite spice to scent doughs, poaching liquids and to flavour drinks; one such drink is known as Glogg (mulled wine).

Essential oils in cardamom play a crucial role in cardamom’s usage in many areas such as cuisine and perfumery as well. Essential oils extracted from cardamom have multiple medicinal uses and they make it an indispensable spice. It was an ingredient in many perfumes and aphrodisiacs. It was used to relieve any gastrointestinal issues such as indigestion, constipation and dysentery. It also has carminative (relieve flatulence) and antispasmodic properties, which help to alleviate symptoms of nausea, flatulence, and indigestion.

Cardamom oil is a warming spice which means that it facilitates blood circulation. Cardamom oil diffusers help regulate the flow of oxygen in the body. It also possesses antimicrobial and antiseptic properties and thus was widely employed to fight gum and teeth issues. As an antiseptic, cardamom oil is used topically.

In today's modern day, cardamom finds its use in many home remedies. Cardamom oil soothes headaches and calms the nervous system. This can be done by rubbing the oil on specific pulse points. It is also used as a diuretic and can help the kidneys to function smoothly by removing excess toxin build-up. Cardamom oil helps renew skin cells and slows down ageing. Due to high concentrations of linalool and limonene in cardamom, it can help soothe scalp inflammation. It reduces dryness and fights bacteria that cause itchy dandruff.

Cardamom seeds were to have antibacterial properties and many used them to brush teeth to avoid decay and cavities. Other antibacterial properties include efficacy against infections caused by E.coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter.

In Ayurveda, cardamom is a tridoshic spice that balances Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. However, Pitta type people must consume it sparingly as it can cause more heat in the body. It reduces the build-up of Ama (toxins) that can block channels and lead to diseases. Cardamom can detoxify by reducing the accumulation of Ama. It reduces Kapha dosha in the stomach and lungs (any congestion) and also pacifies Vata dosha, which when out of control, can cause anxiety.

Most households, especially in North India use cardamom extensively. It is a spice that cannot be ignored and the masala dabba is incomplete without cardamom. 

Signing off with a quick home remedy to fight fatigue after a long day’s work- a pinch of cardamom and turmeric in milk. Cardamom has a good amount of essential vitamins and minerals that can energise the body. With its innumerable benefits and remarkable properties, Cardamom is truly the Queen of Spices.