Native to Southeast Asia, cardamom is a spice with a complex mix of sweet, peppery, floral flavors used in both savory and sweet dishes and teas. While black pepper is considered the King of Spices, cardamom is known as the Queen of Spices because of its many uses, both medicinal and as an ingredient in cuisines all over the world.
Growing in pods that are typically around three quarters of an inch (20 millimeters) in length, cardamom can be bought as dried pods or seeds and provides an aromatic, herby and sometimes minty taste to whatever it touches. Notably, cardamom plays a major role as a flavor component in Indian cuisine, finding its way into staples like curries, masala and chai. There are two main types of cardamom: green and black, black serving as the more savory spice while green (native to Sri Lanka) can be used in sweeter dishes.
While cardamom is most associated with India, the subcontinent is actually one of three major producers of the spice, the others being Guatemala and Sri Lanka. And though we may associate it with Indian cooking, cardamom is widely used as a baking ingredient in Nordic countries (thanks to the Moors) like Sweden, Norway and Finland with desserts like Klenät.
People have been using cardamom for thousands of years, with some of the earliest written mentions going as far back as the Babylonians and Assyrians. While finding a treat made with cardamom isn't difficult now, the spice actually wasn't readily available in the West until the 19th century.
While cardamom is used mainly in the kitchen, it's been touted to decrease blood pressure, fight cancer, help with digestive problems and protect from chronic diseases due to its purported anti-inflammatory properties.
Selling at around $30 a pound, cardamom cashes in as one of the most expensive spices in the world. Because of the labor-intensive harvesting process (much like saffron) involved in bringing cardamom to market, as well as a low yield rate averaging out to around 40 to 120 pounds (18 to 54 kilograms) of seeds per acre, cardamom also has such a distinctive flavor profile that it is nonetheless in high demand worldwide.
Next time you sip a nice iced chai and taste that spicy, herbal, borderline-minty taste, remember how much work went into putting such a complex herb in your cup.