The fifth century Sanskrit epic poem Raghuvansha describes King Raghu’s army marching triumphantly through spice plantations:
On Mount Mahendra’s skirts, lov’d home of birds,
His forces occupied, as on he marched
To conquest. Trampled by his steeds, the bloom
Flying from the fruit of cardamoms
Clung to the foreheads of his elephants
Cardamom has always been one of the most prized of all spices in India, treasured for its scent and flavour. The ancient Romans sailed all the way to the coast of Kerala, where it has been cultivated for millennia, to buy cardamom for use in cooking and to make perfumes. They particularly prized the ability of cardamom pods to freshen the breath when chewed after a meal, and they are still used for this purpose in India.
Cardamom plants are bushes with large leaves that grow up to 6 ft in height. Slender stems emerge near the base of the plant and bear delicate white flowers that turn into green pods, each containing several white seeds.
The pods are plucked and dried so that their skins turn into a papery husk that splits open to release the seeds that have turned brown. Whole dried cardamom is often used to flavour rice preparations and curries.
Fresh cardamom, with its strong flavour and crisp bite, goes into chutneys, pickles and curries. Dried seeds, which have a very intense aroma and flavour, are powdered for use in cooking, most often in Indian desserts. Ground cardamom loses its essential oils quickly and you are better off grinding small quantities of cardamom seeds in a spice grinder just before use.
This unusual curry from Kashmir, infused with the wonderful aroma of cardamom and tinted a glorious red-gold with saffron, is easy to make. For more about saffron, read: The Glory Of Saffron.
For desserts using cardamom in unusual ways, try Cardamom roll cake, Cardamom kahlua tiramisu, Cardamom Halwa Blondies or the classic Indian dessert Gulab Jamun!
Kashmiri Cardamom Chicken Curry
1-1/4 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8), fat trimmed
1 cup full fat plain yogurt, Greek or Balkan style
Salt to taste
1 tbsp ground almonds
1/2 tsp each, ground spices: cardamom, fennel, black pepper, Kashmiri chili powder or paprika, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried ginger
1/4 tsp saffron strands
2 tbsp each, chopped fresh: coriander, mint, lemon juice
2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Cut chicken into bite sized pieces and place in large mixing bowl.
Add yogurt, salt, ground almonds, all of the spices, saffron and herbs to chicken, tossing well to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to overnight.
When ready to cook, warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat.
Add cumin seeds and sizzle 30 sec. Add onions, saute for about 5-7 min until softened.
Add chicken with all its marinade (scrape everything into skillet) and cook for about 5 min until combined, stirring occasionally. Cover and reduce heat to low.
Cook for about 45 min or until chicken is very soft and tender and sauce has thickened.