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Cardamom one of the most highly prized spices, has a history as old as human civilization. The dried fruit of a herbaceous perennial, cardamom is grown mainly in Kerala, Tamilnadu and Karnataka, on the slopes of the Western Ghats. Warm humid climate, loamy soil rich in organic matter, distributed rainfall and special cultivation and processing methods all combine to make Indian cardamom truly unique in aroma, flavour, size and colour. Indian cardamom like ‘Alleppey Green Extra Bold’ (AGEB), ‘Alleppey Green Bold’ (AGB) and ‘Alleppey Green Superior’ (AGS) are names that register instant appeal worldwide.
The true cardamom has large leaves and white flowers with blue stripes and yellow borders; it grows to about 3 m (about 10 ft) in height. The fruit is a small capsule with 8 to 16 brown seeds; the seeds are used as a spice.
The best known cardamom variety is from India. It is obtained from a ginger-like plant, Elettaria cardamomum. Cardamom belongs to the ginger family and is the most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla and is known in India as Queen of Spices. It is also among the most ancient of cultivated spices. Native to south India, cardamom use spread to Europe more than a thousand years ago. The Vikings introduced it to Scandinavia, and Europe has been hooked ever since.
Cardamom has a warm and eucalyptus-like flavour with a hint of lemon.
Cardamom plays an important role in the cultures of Arabia and Africa. They welcome their guests with cardamom-flavoured coffee, and Ethiopians have elaborate cardamom-coffee ceremonies.
The aromatic extract contains many essential oil chemicals, some of which have a smell like that of camphor. Thus, its main use is as an adjunctive spice in curries, coffees and other Asian or Middle Eastern foods. Cardamom and related spices were used by the Romans, and it remains popular in baked products in Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The seeds are widely used in cooking and in chewing products (similar to chewing gum) in India and Pakistan, and in Persian cuisine, but it is not widely appreciated in North America as a cooking spice or as a flavor in candies or beverages. Its exotic qualities have suggested it could be used as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, and long ago it was used as a perfume and breath freshener.
The aroma is stimulant enough to make it popular as a tonic-essence and aphrodisiac down the ages. Arabs use the seeds as an aphrodisiac. Like cloves, cardamoms are popular as a larder remedy for bad breath. Some cultures use the essence as perfume.
Cardamom is a common folk remedy for indigestion in many cultures. It is also popular as a preventive for flatulence and colic. In fact, even many allopathic remedies for indigestion and flatulence use the essential oils as a flavour base. In India, many traditional weight-loss pills have cardamom seeds as an active principle.
Other traditional uses for the spice include cures for bronchitis, sinusitis, fever, sore throat, and liver ailments. Cardamom’s volatile oils certainly have a soothing effect in those who find the smell agreeable, and they certainly relieve bad breath and may stimulate digestion, but there is little evidence to recommend cardamom’s use in other ailments.