Plant of the Week: Elettaria cardamomum

I know that saffron is the most expensive foodstuff by weight in the world, and so the most expensive spice by weight. So what do you suppose numbers two and three on that spice list are?

Vanilla and cardamom. Vanilla I can understand as it’s not an easy plant to crop, but cardamom? The spice that’s used extensively in Indian food around the world?

The Kew Gardens website reveals that until the 19th century, the world’s supply of cardamom came mainly from wild plants in the Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats of India and India remained the world’s largest producer until about 1980, when Guatemala took the title. Cardamom is also grown in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. Outside India, the main consumers are Middle Eastern countries where it is added to tea and coffee and Scandinavian countries where it’s a popular flavouring for baked goods.

Elettaria cardamomum is a member of the ginger family and is sometimes known as the ‘queen of spices’ alongside black pepper (Piper nigrum), the ‘king of spices’. The dried ripe fruits of cardamom have been used in food and medicine since the 4th century BC – the ancient Greeks and Romans considered it an aphrodisiac!

A cardamom plant growing in the Peter Black Conservatory in Palmerston North. It is flowering from the base. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bill Laws includes cardamom in his 2011 book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History.

“The best of the crop went to the royal courts [in India],” he writes. “It was customary to present guests with the gift of cardamom stored in tiny, handcrafted silver or golden barrels and offered in the palm of the hand to the guest … Once the nicotine habit reached India, the silversmiths would prepare for their nawabs green cardamoms covered in silver leaves that had been dipped in rose water laced with tobacco.”

The beautiful orchid-like flowers of Elettaria cardamomum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

See recipes (from well-known British cooks and chefs) that use cardamom here.

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