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  • Food in the 'Hood

    The “Queen of Spices”: Tasting Cardamom Part 2

    Part 1 told the story of cardamom, the ancient aromatic spice, and its place in Indian culture.

    Well-established in India, the spice also found a home in an especially unlikely location — Scandinavia. Some speculate that the Vikings, who were extensive travelers, transported the aromatic there from Constantinople. In these northern lands, families stock their cupboards with cardamom, which imparts a sweet fragrance to breads, cakes, pastries, and other treats.

    Kardemummakaka, a Swedish coffee cake, is scented with cardamom. It is also essential to Swedish sweet breads. Julekaka, a Norwegian Christmas bread studded with candied fruit and raisins, is made with the spice. The Finns bake a pannukakku, a pancake fragrant with cardamom. It “billows from the oven like a giant Yorkshire pudding,” in journalist Robert Jurney’s image.

    During the frigid holiday season, Scandinavians celebrate with cardamom-infused refreshments. Swedish mulled wine, glogg, is a blend of red wine, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel. It is reminiscent of heavily spiced medieval drinks like mead. Cardamom also enlivens savory dishes in Northern Europe. Swedish meatballs are flavored with the spice. Germans sometimes season pickled herring with cardamom and use it in some varieties of sauerbraten.

    When Scandinavians emigrated to America, they carried their fondness for the spice with them. Its aroma filled the room when the ethnics and their friends gathered for coffee in the new land. Cardamom-spiced breads and cakes were a fixture of these occasions.

    In recent years, cardamom has traveled with the Ethiopian diaspora to America, Canada, and other countries. Hale, the Ethiopian word for the spice that was borrowed from Arabic, is a much sought after “tea spice.” Packages of the green capsules line the shelves of their grocery stores.

    The popularity of cardamom in the East African nation has deep roots. Nations in the Horn of Africa have long traded with India and Arabia. Cardamom was an important item of that commerce.

    Cardamom continues to be reincarnated. In pursuit of ever-new flavors and fragrances, modern marketers have resurrected it. Sellers of aroma therapy products purvey cardamom oil to stave off fatigue and stress. Perfumes highlight its aroma. The Indian restaurant in New York City, Elettaria (Latin for cardamom), offers the “8th Wonder” cocktail, a blend of cardamom-infused bourbon, lemon juice, and sweet vermouth.

    Chai, the tea often infused with cardamom, is being offered in varied forms – iced, as smoothies, shakes, cocktails, and even chocolate bars. “Chai is a high-profile replacement for those who don’t drink coffee,” Don Reynolds, owner of Port City Java in Wilmington, North Carolina, told the Nation’s Restaurant News.

    Back in India, a company recently unveiled a cardamom-flavored toothpaste. It is promoting the mouth freshener of old as a healer of gums and a remedy for tooth infection.

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    Cardamom Pleasures

    Le Caprice DC (3460 14th St., NW; 202-290-3109). This French bakery and café owned by the Erfanis, a Persian family, appreciates the flavor provided by cardamom. The shop makes two cardamom-flavored cookies and prepares iced tea fragrant with the spice.

    Jyoti Restaurant (2433 18th St., NW; 202-518-5892). This long-time Adams Morgan Indian eatery offers kheer, the classic rice pudding, adorned with pistachios, almonds, and raisins, and enriched with cardamom.

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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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