Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Black Cardamom

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

You probably know about cardamom. Queen of Spices. Savior of baked goods, Enlivener of curries. All that jazz. Don't get me wrong—I love the stuff. It's a pantry staple, and one of the most interesting spices I know. But recently I've been spirited away by its bold and brash cousin, black cardamom.

A member of the ginger family, black cardamom is a relative of green cardamom, but they're far from the same plant. It has some of the same flavor notes, especially an uplifting menthol element, but it's also smoky, brash and bold. There are times for green cardamom's delicacy, and then there are times to turn things up to 11. Although they have similar flavors, they have very different culinary uses. Black cardamom is the bacon of spices.*

*Pimentón deserves that honor as well, but this stuff is a whole lot, for lack of a better word, funkier.

What Does It Taste Like?

Black cardamom is dried over an open fire, which is what gives it such a powerful smokey aroma. Beneath that are notes of resin and camphor, as well as green cardamom's menthol, slightly minty aromas that provide balance to a funky kick. These intense, heady notes put black cardamom in the "warming" spice category, along with black pepper, cloves, and chiles. It's a major component of the spice blend garam masala, which literally means "warming mixture."

How Do You Use It?

This intensity makes it ideally suited to long-cooked dishes in moist environments, where the spice has plenty of time to release its fat- and water-soluble oils. Like green cardamom, you can remove the seeds and use them whole or ground (for a really intense kick), or grind the whole pod. But I mostly use the pods whole. The flavor is still plenty strong, they're easy to pick out, and it's tough to grind them to a fine powder without getting some unpleasant shards along the way.

Such a strong spice needs strong flavors to stand up to it. I like it best with dried chiles, cumin, and—most importantly—lime juice. The sweet acid cuts down on a lot of black cardamom's medicinal flavors, and I consider it essential. Black cardamom is usually used in concert with several other spices, both to temper it down, and because it does a fantastic job of blending disparate flavors together.

Black cardamom plays well with bitter, long-cooking greens like collards. It also elevates relatively bland lentil and rice dishes in an unsubtle but not overwhelming manner. At its most simple, some rice tossed in a rice cooker with some black cardamom pods is a great improvement to a quick weeknight dinner. It's a lot more sophisticated in dry rubs and sauces for braised meats (especially beef); it's a common player in many North Indian curries. And in one of the more interesting cases of Indian-Chinese fusion, some swear that black cardamom is essential to certain Sichuanese red-cooked dishes.

But this spice isn't limited to Indian and Chinese fare. A pod dropped in a pot roast, a dry rub for barbecued brisket, or a bowl of pho brings just a touch of smoke and something not easily identifiable but altogether delicious. It's a powerful spice, but superb in blends, making it just as versatile—and worthy of adulation—as its more renowned green cousin.

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