Cardamom is a plant species and a spice made from the seeds of the plant, which are native to India and Southeast Asia. These plants belong to the Zingiberaceae family, and true cardamom is classified as Elettaria cardamomum. It is used to make a pungent and aromatic spice that has been used in Europe since about 1214 AD, and in India much longer. Today, it is cultivated in Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Central America, Thailand, Guatemala and Mexico. The spice is used to make traditional medicine and to spice up foods.
Ellettaria cardamomum plants grow about 10 feet (3 meters) in height, and have large leaves and white flowers with blue stripes and yellow borders. The fruit is a small capsule with eight to 16 brown seeds, which are used as the spice, while the plant itself is a perennial herb. It has a fleshy and thick rootstock with flowering stems that grow 6 to 12 feet (1.83 to 3.6 meters) high.
As a spice, cardamom is typically sold in seed pods, with the seeds removed from the pods, or with the seeds ground to a powder, which is the most common form. Pods have the texture of tough paper and are available whole or split. It is best for cooks to buy the whole pod, otherwise it may quickly lose its flavor. It remains a favorite herb in India, where it grows wild in the forests and comes in two main varieties: mysore and malabar. Mysore contains more limeonene and cineol, making it very aromatic.
This aromatic flavor makes this spice popular for baking, particularly for sweet breads, and its strength of flavor means that it can even be used to flavor coffees and teas. In South Asia, it is sometimes used to flavor entrees, including some types of biryani, as well as pilau rice. Besides making food, it is also used in a wide variety of traditional medicines throughout Asia, and it is said to be good for digestion, cleaning the teeth, and even neutralizing some types of venom.
Though mostly used in foods and medicines today, this ancient herb had many historical uses. Ancient Egyptians are known to have chewed it as a tooth cleaner, and the Greeks and Romans used it as a scent in perfume. The Vikings discovered it in Constantinople about a thousand years ago, and introduced the spice to Scandinavia, where it remains popular to this day.
Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world — in fact, only saffron and vanilla are regularly sold at a higher price. As such, it is frequently adulterated. Many inferior substitutes for it exist, such as Nepal, Siam, and winged Java cardamom.