Known as ‘The Queen of Spices’, Cardamom’s aromatic and complex flavour profile has endured in Indian cuisine for centuries. It is a key ingredient in most Chai recipes, with its refreshing aftertaste forming the backbone of the array of diverse spices found in Chai. At its essence, cardamom acts as a charming contradiction, emitting contrasting flavours to thrill the taste buds. A minty, cool flavour with a herbal warmth, cardamom has been described to be sweet yet bitter, retaining the fragrance of pepper while simultaneously possessing the menthol qualities of a Eucalyptus leaf.
Cardamom plant (Elettaria cardamomum) - Wikimedia Commons
Native to the wild of South India, it is one of the oldest spices known to mankind; mentioned in the ancient Ayurvedic medical text ‘Charaka Samhita’ for its health benefits, cardamom is thought to have been used to revive and heal as a medicine for 5000-years. First picked by tribes who found use for the spice as a culinary ingredient, cardamom would soon scamper through the Silk Road to distinguish itself in cultures far and beyond India, as the spice’s legacy grew more powerful through its adoption by different continents.
Ancient Egyptians would chew cardamom pods for oral hygiene, while Greeks and Roman found use for cardamom’s pungent aroma as a perfume. It is alleged that Vikings trading with the Byzantine Empire introduced the spice to Scandinavia, where it continues to be an established flavour in the local cuisine.
Yet it is cardamom’s medicinal properties that have allowed the spice to prevail in so many cultures. An ancient remedy for stomach problems, cardamom’s health benefits have found scientific backing in the 21st century, with studies proving it aids in digestion and can astonishingly prevent or reduce the size of gastric ulcers by over 50%. Other studies have shown cardamom extract’s high level of antioxidants can significantly reduce blood pressure and reduce the number of bacteria in saliva, proving age-old cultural beliefs surrounding cardamom’s medicinal qualities to be genuine.
A spice sanctuary in a land far from home
Having crafted Indian Chai in London for close to a year, I had not realised cardamom’s prevalence in the world. I had believed its legacy began and ended in Indian cuisine, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had been made aware that the cardamom I had used so frequently at Chai Guys was imported from Guatemala, yet when travelling there this summer, the native Indian spice I have grown to know and love played an unexpected role in a land so far from Indian culture.
Natives refer to cardamom as “Oro verde”, the “green gold” of Guatemala, and it was easy to see why. It was first introduced to the country in the years before the First World War, by a German plantation owner who sought to undercut growers of the spice in its native region. Cardamom has thrived in the humid yet cool climate of Guatemala’s evergreen cloud forests ever since, to become one of the country's top agricultural exports. I had known of the nation's cardamom farms. I had not known that 70% of all the cardamom in the world was grown and exported from Guatemalan soil. I dismissed ruminations that my job in London had somehow become intertwined with my travels in Central America, and dived a little deeper into Guatemala’s relationship with the world’s third most expensive spice.
Guatemala's "oro verde" (Pexels)
A means to an end for the people of Guatemala
Despite cardamom’s financial importance in Guatemala, the spice almost exists as an invisible pillar of the economy, a ghost that can be sensed and felt but not seen. Its presence in Guatemala for over a century has not meant the spice has naturally translated well into local cuisine. Although there is an abundance of cardamom farmers, they all told me the same: cardamom simply isn’t for ingesting. Its nickname of “green gold” began to run true. Guatemala is a developing country taking advantage of their cardamom thriving climate by selling their prize to the world. The refreshingly minty spice is as much a monetary asset to the Central American nation as it is a flavoursome ingredient in Indian cooking; cardamom is a means to an end, a way for farmers to feed their families. The aromatic flavour of cardamom is one sought after across the globe, and Guatemalans would rather not eat their wealth away.
Finding a home in paradise
However, cardamom’s inability to infiltrate Guatemalan food recipes does not mean the spice hasn’t begun building a relationship with the local culture. Surrounded by deity-like volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is a crystal-clear body of water where several towns encircled by coffee plantations reside in paradisal peace. In one of these pastel-coloured towns, San Juan, a small cacao factory by the name of Xocolatl is turning the green gold of Guatemala into more than just a financial resource. I was very interested to learn upon my visit to this factory that they were using cardamom in a manner I myself - a connoisseur of Chai - was familiar with: in their drinks.
The ingenious factory has found a way to celebrate cardamom’s influence in Guatemala, as the refreshing evergreen spice permeates into local lore; cardamom extract is used in the fermentation processes of their beers. One of the workers, an indigenous Mayan named Carla, tells me: “Cardamom doesn’t fit into our food diets. But it has a home in Guatemala, and its sweetness is a good compliment to a bitter beer.”
But it is not the beer that grabs my full attention. Carla goes on to explain the fermentation process of a cacao and cardamom rum that the factory is brewing, in which cacao pulp is left with banana leaves for 72 days, before natural ethanol and cardamom are added for the mix to sit for 5 months. The result is astounding. The unmistakable warm, herbal fragrance of cardamom beautifully pervades a golden alcoholic drink which I could not stop thinking about for days (much like when I first exposed my tastebuds to a Vegan Masala Chai). It was in this factory where the essence of ‘Oro verde’ had truly been discovered. Guatemala’s green gold is not only a financial asset, but a herbal treasure to be savoured and revered.
It was fascinating to see how cardamom is used and viewed in a world so far from its native land. I will not forget the rush of excitement that the little cacao factory gave me, towered over and entrapped by looming volcanoes, using the ancient ingredient of cardamom in a new and refreshing way. From its origins as an ayurvedic Indian medicine, to an aphrodisiac for Cleopatra, ‘The Queen of Spices’ has reinvented itself time and again throughout human history. It's great to be witnessing this first hand in the modern day, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
By Charlie Lau
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