Cooking with different spices is a fantastic way to experience global flavors, especially in 2020 when leaving home is harder than ever). But with so many in your pantry, it can be difficult to keep track of what they are and what they taste like. One to spotlight? Cardamom!

It’s been used for centuries to jazz up coffee, rice dishes, and pastries all over the world—but want to know what it actually is? We spoke with Ethan Frisch, co-founder of Burlap & Barrel (a single origin spice company), about what cardamom is, what it tastes like, and where it originated to help break down the multifaceted spice. Frisch works directly with smallholder spice farmers around the world to source the most unique ones, so he knows his way around a spice rack.

What is cardamom?

Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of the cardamom plant, a close relative to ginger and turmeric, that is native to South India. The triangle-shaped pods are made up of spindle-shaped clusters of seeds with a thin outer shell that can be enjoyed both whole or ground. The spice is frequently used in both sweet and savory dishes in global cuisines from India to the Middle East to Scandinavia, says Frisch.

What does cardamom taste like?

Frisch says that cardamom has a complex aroma with a piney, fruity, and almost menthol-like flavor. When used too much, it can be slightly astringent. It pairs wonderfully with citrus, and works well in both desserts and savory dishes.

Where does cardamom grow?

Cardamom is native to South India and is produced widely there, but most of the cardamom we buy in the United States actually comes from Guatemala. That’s because German settlers brought it there in the early 1900s to grow alongside their coffee crops, explains Frisch. As it turns out, the cardamom plants flourished in Guatemala, and the country has since become the largest producer of cardamom. The funny thing? Almost all of Guatemalan cardamom is exported, and it isn’t used much in the local cuisine.
Cardamom thrives at altitude and is also grown in higher altitude areas in China, Laos, and Vietnam, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Are there different types of cardamom?

Yes! There are two main varieties of cardamom (black and green) with two sub-varieties (yellow and white). Green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is the variety most commonly sold in your local spice market, and it’s the type most commonly exported from Guatemala. It’s also the variety most commonly used in Indian cooking. It works well in both sweet and savory dishes, and can be used whole or ground. White cardamom is the bleached version of green cardamom, which has notably less flavor and is grown in hotter, more tropical climates.

Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) goes through a drying process that imbues it with a very pronounced smoky flavor. Most of the smokiness resides in the shell of the pod, while the seeds bear more in common with the green cardamom’s aroma.

What can I make with cardamom?

The spice lends itself to both drinks and food. It’s a key component of the chai spice mix, so you’ll be able to taste it in chai lattes and masala chai. Feeling like tackling a bigger kitchen project? Try this cardamom pistachio kulfi (a traditional South Asian ice cream made into popsciles) or this warming sweet potato and chickpea curry.
For more ways to use this spice, check out these recipes as well as our video above!

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