This is the first installment of The Spice, a monthly series taking an elemental approach to Indian cuisine, a deep-dive into the flavors and ingredients powering the dishes we love.
Madhur Jaffrey, the legendary Indian cookbook author and actress, likes to describe cardamom as the vanilla of India. Known as elaichi, cardamom is similarly fragrant, luxurious and ubiquitous. Just ask Binod Dhakal, who says he named his popular Ann Arbor restaurant “Cardamom” because the so-called “queen” of spices makes appearances in “nearly all food from our kitchen — both savory and sweet.”
It seemed like a perfect choice to kick off The Spice, a series that will spotlight the small but mighty staples of Indian cuisine, considering the flavor profile, health benefits and uses — traditional and unorthodox — of a different element each month. Along the way, we’ll hear from culinary professionals, nutrition experts, restaurateurs and trusted home chefs.
To better understand cardamom, we reached out to Priya Krishna, a food writer who contributes regularly to Bon Appetit and The New York Times. She’s also the author of the forthcoming cookbook Indian-ish, an exploration of diasporic cooking that promises such revamped favorites as quinoa kheer and roti pizza.
Krishna loves cardamom for its aroma, which she describes as sweet and floral. “You put it in a dish and you can smell the cardamom a mile away,” she says. “The aromatics of it are just off the charts.”
That makes it an obvious addition to Indian sweets (say, gajjar halwa). In dessert, Krishna says, “cardamom is your best friend.” The natural sweetness of the spice, paired with sugar, makes for what she calls an “out of bounds delicious” flavor. And it’s not exclusive to Indian cuisine: Last year, Detroit bakery Sister Pie featured a cardamom tahini squash pie in its fall rotation. “If you’re making a cake, add some crushed cardamom to the batter, says Krishna. “It’ll taste like the most complex, interesting cake ever. It’s my favorite way to upgrade plain vanilla.”
In savory dishes too, Krishna says cardamom can add an “unexpected depth or fanciness.” If making an Asian-inspired stir-fry, she suggests adding some basil and crushed cardamom pods or seeds for a sweet, aromatic element. In tomato- and squash-based soups, crushed and toasted cardamom pods tossed into the blender can create a more intense flavor.
For those less-inclined to spend time in the kitchen, there’s a simple, no-prep way to enjoy the flavor. Krishna advocates munching on whole cardamom pods for a light, natural breakfast. On her desk, she keeps a ceramic bowl filled with whole pods to enjoy after lunch, as a kind of digestif.
But Krishna still considers preparing dishes the best way to become acquainted with a spice or ingredient. “For me, it really started with finding a dish or two and cooking. I feel like that’s the only way you can really understand an ingredient and its utility.” While writing her cookbook, she benefited from “the repetitive motion” of making certain dishes of her mother’s and understanding, “‘OK, cumin goes with cardamom, mustard seeds go with curry leaves, these flavors complement each other.’”
“Indian cuisine,” Krishna says, “is all about blooming them or tempering them in oil to really bring out their aromatics, their punch.” With cardamom, that’s easy — just a little bit goes a long way, so anyone cooking with it can be sparing. Because cardamom can lose its potency, Krishna recommends investing in a mortar and pestle to crush whole pods, rather than using ground cardamom powder. (“That stuff turns to sawdust in a matter of months. You’ll just end up buying it again.”)
Cardamom pods can be bought in small batches because “even a single pod adds a crazy amount of depth and aroma to a dish,” she says. “It’s a great spice in that you don’t need to add a whole lot of it for it to have a big punch.”