Cardamom, native to India is the queen of spices

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Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at nshah32@hotmail.com

By Niranjan Shah
Dear Nikita and Sanjna:

The name cardamom is used for herbs within two genera of the ginger family Zingi-beraceae, namely Elettaria and Amomum. Both varieties take the form of a small seedpod, triangular in cross-section and spindle-shaped, with a thin papery outer shell and small black seeds. Elettaria pods are light green in color, while Amomum pods are larger and dark brown.

The two main genera of the ginger family that are named as forms of cardamom are distributed as follows: Elettaria (commonly called cardamom, green cardamom, or true cardamom) is distributed from India to Malaysia. Amomum (commonly known as black cardamom, brown cardamom, Kravan, Java cardamom, Bengal cardamom, Siamese cardamom, white or red cardamom) is distributed mainly in Asia and Australia. Indian cardamom is slightly smaller, but more aromatic.

Although India is the largest producer of cardamom, only a small share of the Indian production is exported because of the large domestic demand. The main exporting country is Guatemala, where cultivation of cardamom has been introduced to less than a century ago and where all cardamom is grown for export only.

The McCormic/Schilling Guide to Gourmet Spices states that Cardamom, native to India, is the queen of spices. It is richly perfumed with a sweet refreshing flavor.  Grown in Central America, it is important in curries and Scandinavian dishes. The Greek/Latin name Cardamom may have been derived from Sanskrit Kardamum. Will Durant, American author of Story of Civilization, writes: “Appended to the Atharva Veda is the Ayur Veda (The science of longevity). In this oldest system of Hindu (Indian) medicine, treatment is recommended with herbs. Many of its diagnoses and cures are still used in India, with a success that is sometimes the envy of Western physicians. The Ayur Veda names over a thousand such plants. “Cardamom is one of these herbs. Other Sanskrit name for cardamom is “el?”. In Urdu/Hindi/-Gujarati and some Southern Indian languages, it is called ilaayachee or elchi. In Nepali, it is Alaichii. In Marathi, it is Velchi or Veldodaa. In Malaya-lam, it is Aelam. In Telugu and Tamil, it is elakkai, and in Kannada it is yelakki.

Both forms of cardamom are used as flavorings in both food and drink, as cooking spices and as a medicine. Elettaria cardamomum (the usual type of cardamom) is used as a spice, a masticatory, and in medicine; it is also smoked sometimes; it is used as a food plant by the larva of the moth Endoclita hosei. Green cardamom in South Asia is broadly used to treat infections in teeth and gums, to prevent and treat throat troubles, congestion of the lungs and pulmonary tuberculosis, inflammation of eyelids and also digestive disorders. It also is used to break up kidney stones and gall stones, and was reportedly used as an antidote for both snake and scorpion venom. Amomum is used as a spice and as an ingredient in traditional medicine in systems of the traditional Chinese medicine in China, in Ayurveda in India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Species in the genus Amomum are also used in traditional Indian medicine. Among other species, varieties and cultivars, Amomum villosum cultivated in China, Laos and Vietnam is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat stomach-aches, constipation, dysentery, and other digestion problems. “Tsaoko” cardamom Amomum tsao-ko is cultivated in Yunnan, China and northwest Vietnam, both for medicinal purposes and as a spice. Increased demand since the 1980s, principally from China, for both Amomum villosum and Amomum tsao-ko has provided a key source of income for poor farmers living at higher altitudes in localized areas of China, Laos and Vietnam, people typically isolated from many other markets. Guatemala has become the world’s largest exporter of cardamom.

—Grandpa’s blessing

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