Monday, May 17, 2010

Cardamom: My Favorite Spice for Tea

When I was growing up, I was familiar with a number of spices, including cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and even allspice and mace. However, for some reason, it was not until years later that I became acquainted with cardamom. Cardamom is commonly used in India and the middle east, and to some degree in southeast Asia, but it is rarely used in American or Western European traditions. Cardamom is related to ginger, and comes in two main varieties: green and black. While I love black cardamom (especially in barbecue), it's green cardamom that I love in the context of tea.

Green cardamom comes in greenish-gray pods:

Each pod contains a number of small, hard black seeds which contain most of the flavor.

What does cardamom taste like?

I find cardamom very hard to describe. One of the reasons I like it is that, in my opinion, it doesn't taste remotely like anything else. Although related to ginger, it has none of the sharpness or spiciness that ginger has. Its aroma is soft yet very strong...and also very fresh. But its freshness is not piercing in the way cilantro or parsley is. It's distinctive yet versatile, equally at home in a cookie or a savory stew.

Cardamom in Masala Chai or Spiced Tea:

To be honest, I'm not the hugest fan of spiced tea. I usually like my tea straight (no sweetener, no flavorings, no milk), but I do enjoy a well-made masala chai from time to time, and I've noticed that I have strong preferences about what spices go into it. And I've learned that, for my own personal enjoyment, cardamom is the key. My favorite spiced teas are those in which cardamom is the dominant spice, cinnamon is totally absent, and the other spices are solidly in the background.

Whole or ground?

In my opinion there is absolutely no question here: buy whole cardamom. There are multiple advantages to this. Although its aroma seems gentle, cardamom has a surprisingly dominating character to it; in powdered form it is very easy to add too much of it to something. Using the pods in tea have the advantage that they can be steeped together with the leaves, and the aroma permeates more gradually, giving you more control over the outcome. Whole pods also make measuring easy--simply count the number of pods. The last advantage is freshness. I have found that whole cardamom pods stay fresh a very long time, whereas the powdered spice, even if stored in an airtight container, loses its aroma much more quickly. If you ever need the ground spice for cooking, you can use a mortar and pestle to grind up the pods yourself--because you usually need so little, the extra time and effort is not much of a big deal.

Where to buy?

Cardamom can be expensive, but I've found that the best place (both with respect to quality and price) to buy it is in specialty import stores. Make sure you can smell it before buying it. Here in Newark, Delaware I buy it at a small Turkish store. If there are any middle-eastern or Indian import stores near you, consider looking at them to see if they carry this spice.


  1. You know, I have the same feelings.
    I love Cardamom.
    When I make chai, I usually add three pods worth of cardamom per 1 and a half cups.
    The flavor is not overwhelming, but it just seems so much more full when there is cardamom present!
    I especially love cardamom in home made breads!

  2. Ahh yes! I totally agree with you...cardamom is fantastic in bread.

  3. I love cardamom, too. I have found that lacking any Eastern or middle Eastern Stores, Penzey's Spices - mail order or online is often quite good - buy all my unusual spices there unless I've just been to one of the afore-mentioned stores. Frontier is also good, but you usually need to be large amounts. Mountain Rose Herbs is also good.

  4. These are really good recommendations of yours too. I also really like Penzey's spices, and they not only stock some unusual things, but often have several different varieties of common spices (like cinnamon).

    I haven't tried as many things from Frontier or Mountain Rose Herbs but I've generally had good experiences with them too!

  5. I never knew whole cardamom was better than in ground form. I definitely recommend getting cardamom from an Indian specialty store. I've always found their quality to be the best.