In the heartland of spice-world, it is hard to resist a love affair with the heady fragrance of the queen of spices.
She is the special one whose leaves are aromatic, whose fruits are called capsules, whose seeds reside inside peacock green colored pods and whose herbaceous perennial crop claims a relationship with the famous ginger family (Zingiberaceae). She is the world’s latest ‘it spice’ which lends lingering fragrance to Indian biryanis, sums up Swedish baking, enhances the taste of Scandinavian coffee and adds a magical flavor to everything, from curries to desserts. While Pepper is known as the King of Spices, Cardamon is the beloved queen.
Though Cardamom is widely famous for the avalanche of sophisticated and intense flavors that it releases – flowers, ginger, pepper, citrus, camphor and more, for the alluring detoxification properties it possesses and for the appearances it makes in the household’s kitchen and medicine cabinets, it rarely tells its own story. For those who are ardent fans of cardamom and make curious travelers, a spice tour in one of the cardamom plantation in Thekkady in Kerala is a great idea to pick interesting facets and facts about its demeanor, growth, size and grades.
Taking a look in the kitchens of the world
From the cardamom flavored coffees prepared by the Bedouins to Swedish flatbreads and cakes to Uzebkistan’s famous rice dishes to the Srilankan chicken curries to Oriental rice-and-meat dishes, e. g., Turkish pilav and Arabic kabsah, to the Indian Elaichi tea, the distinguishable flavor and woody notes of cardamom is often employed for various culinary adventures all over the world. Most of the kitchens in India are able to boast of having cardamoms because of the extensive Eletaria cardamomum plantations in Kumily, Thekkady and the Cardamom hills which comprise of the Western Ghats and clusters of Periyar Tiger reserve. 70 per cent of India’s cardamom grows in the state of Kerala at an altitude of 600 to 1200 metres and you will be surprised to know that only a small share of the Indian production is exported because of the large domestic demands.
For the love of Cardamom
How does one identify a cardamom plant? What does its flowers look like? Where does the cardamom grow, in the branches or the roots? What is its harvest period and what are the processes followed before selling it to the shops? Do you know the sizes vary from 5.5mm to 9mm? Here is some wisdom around its growing, harvesting, processing and auctioning, learned at a cardamom plantation in Thekkady.
There is something so captivating about the sweet, a little camphorous, eucalyptus-like aroma of cardamom that a walk through the winding pathways in the lush green spice plantations of Thekkady in the Idukki district of Kerala urges one to dig in the facts and learn what goes into the making of cardamoms from its flowers to fruits before it reaches the kitchens. Some of the most interesting facts are based on its classification. Some traders and buyers love the biggest pods and some pick the smallest pods. There are three main varieties- 8 mm and above are special quality, 6.5 mm and above are popular and 5.5 -6.5 are small. Cardamoms are also recognized based on the nature of panicles (stem). In the international market, they are recognized in three varieties- ‘Alleppey Green Extra Bold’ (AGEB), ‘Alleppey Green Bold’ (AGB) and ‘Alleppey Green Superior’ (AGS).
The perennial plant of cardamom never fails to build interest of the onlookers as the flower stems grow out from the base around the perimeter of the clump and the pods (capsules) which hold the tightly packed seeds are born on these stems. Interestingly, the plant thrives in filtered shade and doesn’t need direct sunlight. These thick shrub-like plants happily grow up to 2 – 4 m in height under the canopy of much higher trees. Cardamom flowers are white in color with reddish strip over them while the fruits (capsules) are beautiful green. When it is green and dry, it is easy to pick and store. If the leaves turn brownish, it indicates that either the crop was under-watered or it was subjected to low humidity. Harvesting at the correct stage of maturity is absolutely essential for cardamoms.
There are two genera, Elettaria (green) and Amomum (black).
We are talking about the green ones.
Born of attractive flowers, pods, seeds and ground, the cardamom crop can be harvested four times a year. It was interesting to learn that soil and temperature play a very important role in the growth of cardamoms. While a cool climate does wonders, a soil rich in clay is not well suited for it. Rather this spice requires tropical, hot and humid climate, and a constantly moist soil. The humidity level is equally crucial and it is needed to be near 75%. A cardamom crop is an investment and it bears fruit only after the third year of planting.
Processes that make it precious
One can vouch for the delicacy and freshness of the cardamoms from India not just because it grows in one of the most suitable climates but also because the cardamom planters have a passion for it. A good harvest is most important for a perfect processing.
Cleaning is the primary process. Some planters soak the freshly picked cardamom in washing soda solution to keep its green color intact, others wash it in water to remove the dirt and stalks. Next follows drying. Initially there used to be drying shed or wooden chambers (fuel kilns) which maintained a constant temperature to dry the pods but now there are drying machines (electrical drier) which provide the essentials, 45-50 °C for 14-18 hours. Uniform drying is extremely essential and thus the drier stirs them frequently. The loss of water is responsible for its immediate shrinkage. Winnowing removes the foreign matter. And next they are sorted and packed in gunny bags based on size and color. They are kept in wooden chambers till they are sent for auction and final packaging. There should be no light right from the drying process to prevent the impact on color.
Too many healthy reasons to love Cardamom
For decades, the queen of spices has been alluring not just for its flavor alone but also for its Ayurveda and medicinal properties. While it acts as anti-infecting for the gums and teeth, it helps to relief the cough in the lungs. It is digestive as well as of the nature of an aphrodisiac. The spicy pods not just contain many essential volatile oils but the seeds are a good source of minerals like potassium and calcium. Additionally, the pods are also rich in many vital vitamins, iron and manganese too.
Things to know beyond flavor and fragrance!
- After saffron and vanilla, cardamom is one of the most expensive spices.
- Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) is also known as Nepal cardamom.
- A ripe and mature capsule has black seeds while an immature capsule has white seeds.
- Swedish baking is incomplete without cardamoms. To get a Swedish feel, just add cardamom to your desserts.
- The peacock green color of cardamom was highly valued by the Arabs. It was a matter of pride and prestige to use the greenest cardamom for their spice infused coffees.
- ‘gahwa’ – a strong cardamom coffee concoction
- Besides India, Gautemala produces cardamoms on a large commercial scale and exports most of it.
The edited version was published in MAY-JUNE edition of TRUJETTER.