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  • Food in the 'Hood

    “The Queen of Spices”: Tasting Cardamom – Part 1

    I chewed on the cardamon seeds and a pleasing bittersweet taste took over my mouth. “It’s good for breath,” Kiran Kumar Kamble, the Indian chef who once prepared a lunchtime Indian buffet at Jolt ’N Bolt, the Adams-Morgan coffee house at 1918 18th Street, NW, told me. He offered me a few pods and, with them, the resident sage offered a few words of advice: “Now go home and kiss your wife.”

    The ancient spice is still prized as a digestif and mouth cleanser. The Moghul emperors of India often carried silver boxes of cardamom to refresh their stomachs. Along with fennel, cloves, and other aromatics, it is folded into paan, the heart-shaped leaf that many South Asians today chew as relentlessly as they did in the past.

    If we know cardamom at all, it is this “true” or green cardamom that I was savoring. Cardamom, a member of the ginger family, is native to southwestern India, in the present state of Kerala. It grows wild there on large leafy bushes in the hills of rainy evergreen forests. The plant thrives in the shade and grows best at altitudes of 500 to 5,000 feet. “It luxuriates in mists and fogs and cooling sea breezes,” George Watt, a leading scholar of Indian botany, points out.

    The green pods or fruits, which appear as the flowers die out, are attached to stalks that spread out along the ground from the plant’s base. The capsules, which are most desirable when they are plumpest, contain the fragrant seeds. The spice treasures of India lured Portuguese mariners who built trading posts and “factories” for storing and processing these riches along the country’s Malabar Coast. Their ships carried away black pepper, ginger, and cardamom, as well as indigo, rubies, coconut oil, and perfumes.

    The spice’s name derives from intriguing roots. One, amomon, is an old semitic word for “very spicy.” The other source is the Greek word kardamon, the name for “cress,” a sharp-tasting plant that the Greek writer Discourides called the “burning seed.”

    The Chinese were drawn to the plant’s spiritual power. The “wisdom-augmenting seeds” of the black cardamom were eaten in dumplings or honeyed rice, according to historian Edward Schafer. The bitter spice, one medieval commentator wrote, “increased the breath, stabilized the soul, and supplemented inadequacies.”

    To the Indians, elaichi (Hindi for cardamom) was first sacred and medicinal and only later culinary. Gifts of fragrances honored kings and gods. Early Hindus blessed Rama, offering him a drink flavored with ginger and cardamom.

    The Portuguese physician, Garcia de Orta, who lived in Goa during the 16th century, considered cardamom a useful remedy for respiratory ills. Indians took it to “open nasal passages and clear the head.” Many still believe the preaching of the Ayurveda, the bible of Indian medicine, that cardamom is a “cooling” spice.

    Far from the Subcontinent, cardamom is an important spice in Scandinavia. How did the exotic flavoring reach these Northern lands?

    Part 2 will tell the story of Caramom’s use in Scandinavia and in other places beyond.

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    Cardamom Pleasures

    Black Lion Market (3500 14th St. NW, 202-747-0044),  Ethiopian-owned, this Columbia Heights shop sells hale (the Amharic name for cardamom) as well as other spices and foodstuffs used in the cooking of the East African country.

    Dolcezza Gelato Gourmet (1704 Conn. Ave. NW, 202-333-4646; 1560 Wisc. Ave. NW, 202-333-4646). This ice cream café offers lemon cardamom gelato and sorbet as well as other unique flavors.

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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