There are times when cooking with spices feels like cheating. The complex flavors they lend to food—and the caché of exoticism that so often goes with them (authentic or wildly otherwise)—just seems unfair. Sure, quality ingredients make quality meals. But it's one thing when you're talking about beef from a cow that ran happy and free its whole life, or tomatoes lovingly nursed into ripe blushing splendor. Spices, if eaten on their own, are for the most part overwhelming chunks of grit that get stuck in your teeth. For something that's only really food in the broadest of senses, spices can put other wholesome, earnest ingredients to shame. Which, if you consider how easy they are to employ, starts to feel like cheating.
For no spice is this more the case than cardamom, the Queen of Spices. No other spice more completely captures the essence of the exotic. No other ingredient could make a peasant's mash of legumes and onions taste like food royalty. Even to its culinary home, cardamom's perfume is lavished on dishes as a way of making even mundane foods something completely different.
Cardamom's complex flavor is difficult to describe: part nostril-widening menthol, part dew-drenched flower, part honeyed syrup. There's nothing subtle about cardamom, so when used in all but sparing amounts it will dominate whatever it's paired with. Used properly, it elevates sweet and savory dishes, adding layers of flavor that stay with the tongue for a whole meal. Its minty qualities open up the palate while its floral nature adds a nuanced sweetness, finishing with a note of almost herbal bitterness.
Cardamom may be at its best when paired with flavors that exhibit some restraint. For example, it's friendliest to fruits that aren't overly sweet. Apples are a prime example (cardamom is perfect in pie), as are pears. Grapes are another fine pairing—that is, once converted into wine (try mulling wine with a couple pods). As are earthy, hearty legumes, most typically in the Indian lentil stew called daal. Plain, mild flavors, like cauliflower, tend to get bowled over by cardamom. Better are subtle but nuanced ones, like fresh milk (classically paired in Indian rice pudding, called kheer), and butter (cardamom is a must in many traditional Scandinavian cookies and pastries.) Cardamom also shines in subtler chocolate applications, like chocolate chip cookies or something with a dash of cocoa powder.
That last example may have you wondering just how cardamom, a plant native to India, became such a big hit in Scandinavia, hardly a major stop on the spice trade routes. The answer dates back to when Istanbul was called Constantinople, in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. As the bridge between Asia and Europe, goods from India passed through the city on a daily basis. It was also one of the last stops on the Vikings' expeditions into Europe. They became fond of the spice and took it back home, where it's been a pastry mainstay ever since. After India and the Middle East, Scandinavia leads the world in cardamom consumption.
Closer to its home country, cardamom has been paired with bolder flavors like ginger (a close relative), coffee, tea, and meat of all kinds. In some areas, the spice is considered essential to a humdrum pot of coffee or tea, and it's difficult to imagine a lamb biryani without some cardamom pods nestled among the rice. Arab cooks added it to many a syrup- and/or almond-based dessert; cardamom penetrates ultra-sweet foods with ease, giving them a rounded complexity. These cooks often used cardamom in tandem with rose petals, orange blossom water, and cinnamon—all wise decisions.
In savory dishes, cardamom is chiefly used in curries and rice dishes, which only sounds limiting until you consider that curry is a meal with slightly fewer variations than, say, soup. It's a must in my home-spun chicken tikka-like meals, as well as in more authentic fare like rogan josh and other almond- and ghee-heavy dishes from the Moghul reign of India. But there's no reason to stop at the traditional: chicken adobo would be a welcome recipient of a couple cardamom pods. This is a spice that rewards experimentation.
Well, at least if you step gingerly. Too much cardamom can easily overwhelm and ruin a dish, masking everything with a medicinal minty flavor. For savory meals, a single pod (by far the best way to store and use cardamom) may be enough to have an effect; four is often plenty. And if you leave the pods whole they are easy to remove later. For pastries or dishes where pods would get in the way, you're best off smashing the pods with a skillet and removing the inner seeds. The pod is hard to grind and often leaves chunks behind; the softer seeds, the real potent aromatics of the pod, are much easier to get smooth. Proceed with extra caution in this case, as you'll need even less of the potent seeds to have an effect. You can do so much with so little that it feels like cheating.