While many Americans are very familiar with the popular spicy Chai tea from India, few people are aware of one of its key flavorings: cardamom. A relative of ginger, cardamom has been a valued and widely used spice in Asian culture for centuries. The cardamom plant produces pods, which contain the seeds. It is these pods that are harvested so that the seeds can be used in culinary and medicinal applications. There are two categories of cardamom plants; one produces smaller, light green pods and the other produces larger, brown or black pods. Both varieties have a warm, mildly spicy flavor that adds depth to both savory and sweet dishes in many Asian cultures, most notably Indian. Cardamom is the spice that gives Chai tea its distinctive, vanilla-like taste. In terms of price, only vanilla beans and saffron are more expensive than cardamom; its cost is indicative of the demand for cardamom, as well as the limited areas in which it grows. Cardamom is indigenous to India and Nepal, although it has been successfully cultivated in other warm, tropical regions. While purchasing whole cardamom pods is preferred to preserve freshness, it is the seeds inside the pod that yield the health benefits.
Cardamom has a well established history as an important medicinal spice. Pods can be chewed whole, or the seeds can be crushed and steeped in boiling water to create a bold, spicy infusion. Cardamom is very high in antioxidants, particularly phenolics and flavonoids. Regular consumption of cardamom tisane can promote healthy tissue function and fight free radicals. These same antioxidants help to fight inflammation, so cardamom is a common component of holistic remedies for arthritis. It is also commonly used as a digestive aid; the same essential oils that give cardamom its distinctive spicy flavor also encourage healthy function in the stomach and intestines. It has been shown to be effective against all sorts of digestive problems, from nausea to flatulence. It may also relieve cramping due to antispasmodic properties. Cardamom is a natural detoxifying agent; it can help to clear out harmful waste compounds and allow your body’s organ systems to function more efficiently. Its anti-bacterial properties have long been used in dental care; cardamom can help heal infections in the teeth and gums, and can curb halitosis (which is often the result of bacteria in the mouth and digestive tract). Cardamom may have been the first teeth-whitening agent; ancient Egyptians steeped strong infusions for just that purpose.
The vast collection of health benefits attributed to cardamom is enough reason to add this exotic spice to your infuser. But an even more compelling reason might be its unique flavor. The delightful warm spice of cardamom is wonderful alone, and pairs well with a lot of other flavors. Add cardamom to black tea (true tea) for a morning pick-me-up that is more flavorful than gourmet coffee. Or, blend cardamom with cinnamon, ginger, or vanilla for a delicious personalized mix. Cardamom is so tasty you’ll forget how healthy it is.