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(Elettaria cardamomum) Also spelled as cardamum. However, it is often wrongly spelled as cardamon. A member of the ginger family, indigenous to Sri Lanka and southern India. The pale green oval pods containing from 15-20 brown or black seeds, are the best kind to buy and use. Sometimes the pods are chemically bleached white to make them more appealing, but it is preferably to use them in their naturally dried state.

There are many imitations, among them Amomum subulatum, called black or brown cardamom or, in Hindi, barra illaichi ('large cardamom'). It is also called 'false cardamom' and its flavor is not as sweetly fragrant. The seeds look similar but have an antiseptic flavor, and are used only in savory recipes, and never to flavor sweets.

There are also other seeds which look very much like cardamom seeds to the casual observer, but which come from a different plant, and are actually Melegueta pepper, also known as grains of paradise or Guinea grains. They are related to cardamom, but have less fragrant and more peppery flavor. There is quite a lot of flavor in the cardamom pod, and when using cardamoms whole in simmered dishes, the favored method is to lightly bruise whole pods and drop them in. The fragrance will permeate the dish. The pods may be lifted out before serving or left in as many people quite enjoy finding a cardamom pod and may chew on it after the meal. Cardamom is known and used as a breath freshener.

Cardamom is overtaken only by saffron when assessing the world's most valuable spices. Because of its high cost, the temptation to adulterate ground cardamom is frequently yielded to, another reason to buy the whole pods and crush them yourself with a mortar and pestle for the very best results. One of the newer ways of adding cardamom flavor is cardamom extract to be added only a few drops at a time. It is guaranteed 100 percent pure cardamom, and certainly smells and tastes like it is. Read the label to be sure it is 'extract' and not 'essence'.

Purchasing and storing : It is always preferable to buy green cardamom and to buy it in the pod. Reputable spice companies offer ground cardamom in small glass jars which is excellent, particularly the decorticated type (seed only). It is strong and retains its fresh fragrance very well, but is necessarily expensive and does not move fast off grocery shelves, so is not widely stocked. Ground whole cardamom (pods and all), while not as strong as the decorticated type, is perfectly adequate though you will need to use a bit more than if you peel and grind your own.

Preparation : It is best to lightly toast cardamom pods before removing the seeds for grinding. Do this over medium-low heat in a dry pan. To split the pods, put a few at a time in a mortar and give a few gentle thumps with a pestle. Remove the small dark seeds and pound finely. Store airtight in a cool, dark place. With regard to the cost and trouble taken to make pure ground cardamom, it is advisable to keep the precious spice in the freezer.

Medicinal uses : Cardamom seeds are regarded as a digestive, either on their own or as part of the betel chew which is often served after a meal in India. They are considered effective against flatulence and minor stomach problems and as an anti-spasmodic.

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