Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cardamom, queen of spices

Cardamom with unripe pods, Aidan Brooks Trainee Chef

For many years cardamom has been my favourite spice. I put it in everything from rice pudding and cakes to stews and stir fries. It's the secret ingredient in my best dishes.

Native to India and Sri Lanka, this plant is grown in North America in special botanical collections. I've never seen it in a commercial nursery in Canada. But it is grown in Kew Gardens, and in the Montreal Botanical Gardens.

I first tasted cardamon long ago at the Afghan Horsemen, a Vancouver restaurant now located on Granville Island. My discovery happened not at the Broadway and Cambie location, but an earlier one, further west, at Maple Street.

When I first saw the restaurant sign, I was living alone on West Fourth at Arbutus Street. Along with the pictures of the Horsemen, I noticed the interesting-looking decor, including low tables with cushions to sit on. I treated myself to solitary dinner, and found the meal delicious.

That evening, I feel head over heels in love with cardamom, which was sprinkled on top of the rice pudding, and also added to the tea. Never having tasted this wonderful spice, I asked what it was. The next day, I went off to Famous Foods to buy some.

Three common types of cardamom are green, black and Madagascar. In cooking, green cardamom pods or prepared powder are usually used, in a wide variety of dishes both sweet and savoury.

Black cardamom is quite different, with larger pods and a smoky, aromatic, camphor-like aroma. It has its own sphere of uses in certain types of Indian and Chinese cuisine.

In Middle Eastern countries, cardamom may be used to flavour coffee.This spice is also cultivated in Mexico, Guatemala, and Indonesia, and is also much appreciated in Scandinavian countries.

The plant belongs to the same family as turmeric and ginger. Cardamom is sometimes used to relieve indigestion, asthma and bronchitis, and is considered good for teeth and gums.

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