The Queen Of Spices

Cardamom rules in India, enlivening dishes from mangoes to vindaloo with clean, bright flavor


DELHI, INDIA — DELHI, India-- --Cardamom. Indigenous to India, this astringent spice has a name that sounds like a mental reminder of something you really must do before Mother's Day. "Note to self: Send flowers or, at the very least, a cardamom."

This somewhat-punishing pun occurred to me one afternoon a few weeks ago as I jostled along on the back of a bicycle rickshaw and my hardworking driver pedaled me deep into the ever-narrowing streets of Old Delhi, India.

A chaotic warren of atmospheric alleys, this was once the walled city of Shahjahanabad, a Mughal capital founded in the mid-17th century. Roughly 300 years later, the British erected New Delhi, a spacious and pristine imperial capital, alongside it. My destination was Old Delhi's Khari Baoli, reputed to be the biggest spice market in Asia.

Earlier that day, I'd visited with Deepak Gullati, owner of Roopak's, one of Delhi's premier purveyors of dried fruit, pickles and seasonings. Gullati told me that the essential flavors of Indian cuisine were chiles, coriander, cumin, black pepper and cardamom. Like you, perhaps, I was familiar with the first four, but this last was a stumper.

I dimly recalled making a Waldorf salad recipe in which cardamom added a curious zest to apples, walnuts, celery and mayonnaise. It was surprising, however, to hear Gullati's opinion that cardamom is an essential element of India's savory stews. I decided to learn more about cardamom, or what's often referred to in India as the queen of spices.

We'd emerged from a particularly tight passage - tangled, crackling electrical wires and centuries-old balconies nearly meeting above my head - and here spread out before me were dozens of open-air stalls bursting with spices for sale.

Piled high on large trays were colorful pyramids of asafetida, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, fennel seeds, garam masala, mace, mint, mustard, nutmeg, saffron, sesame seeds and turmeric. At the very center of this bounty were fragrant piles of cardamom in three varieties: green, dark brown and - could I believe my eyes? - silver.

Scrambling down from my perch, I approached a young vendor named Pankaj Syal, who happily permitted me to sample his wares. To Syal's palate, cardamom has an aromatic flavor that is somewhere between lemon and anise.

Though cardamom is less well-known in Western countries (other than in Scandinavia, where cardamom is prominently featured in holiday cookies), Indian, Arab and African cuisines add its versatile taste to pastries and cakes, milk puddings, stewed fruit and rice dishes, as well as both vegetarian and meat entrees.

Cardamom grows wild in western India and is found in other tropical areas across Asia, South and Central America (especially Guatemala) and the Pacific Islands. Similar to coffee plants, it thrives in shady rain forests at altitudes of more than 3,000 feet.

A member of the ginger family, cardamom comes from an herbaceous perennial that grows to a height of several feet but has an underground rhizome. The flowers that emerge from this subterranean stem are delicate white blossoms with fine purple streaks radiating from their center, almost as if they were miniature orchids.

Once the flowers are pollinated, pods form that can be pale green or brown in color, oval, slightly knobby in shape and about a half-inch long. Each pod contains 17 to 20 tiny seeds.

Cardamom can be purchased as pods or in powdered form. Though more convenient, the latter is not as full-flavored because cardamom seeds begin to lose their essential oils as soon as they're pulverized. Indian chefs prefer to grind the whole pod in a mortar and pestle or even just lightly "bruise" its shell under the flat side of a knife, similar to peeling a garlic clove.

"The taste of it is good, but the scent is especially good," said Awan Anwar, owner of Punjab Groceries on East 33rd Street in Baltimore, where green cardamom pods are perpetually one of his shop's best-selling spices. "It smells like eucalyptus."

Mohammad Naqibuddin, who hails from Bangladesh but is now a physician researcher in rheumatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was shopping in Anwar's store and agreed with this description of the spice's olfactory allure. While he mostly uses cardamom when sauteing meat, Naqibuddin likes to make ordinary rice distinctive by cooking it with a few cloves, raisins and cardamom pods. "It adds a fresh taste that just gives you a pleasure feeling."

A few days after my rickshaw ride, I dined at the Imperial, a hotel that was considered the apogee of luxury when Sir Edwin Lutyens laid out his master plan for New Delhi in the 1920s. (It's still frightfully posh.) At one of the Imperial's restaurants named the Spice Route, I received a pleasure feeling when I savored a local delicacy called rogan josh, or lamb cooked with a rich gravy in which I could clearly discern the clean, bright presence of cardamom.

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