The Indian name for black cardamom is badi elaichi or kali elaichi. Roughly one inch in length, the pods are dark brown to black in color and have a tough, dried, wrinkly skin. Cardamom is the world's third-most expensive spice, surpassed in price per weight only by vanilla and saffron.
Black cardamom is dried over an open fire and has a distinct smoky aroma and flavor. The pods are highly aromatic but not as much as green cardamom. In recipes, black cardamom should not be used if a recipe calls for green cardamom. The two pods have extremely different taste profiles. Unlike green cardamom, the black variety of this spice is rarely used in sweet dishes.
Black cardamom has notes of resin and camphor, as well as menthol, slightly minty aroma that provides balance to an otherwise funky flavor. These intense, heady notes put black cardamom in the "warming" spice category, along with black pepper, cloves, and chiles.
History and Origin
Black cardamom is scientifically named Amomum subulatum. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. Several species of the genus Amomum are distributed all over the mountainous area from the Himalayas to Southern China. The main production regions are Eastern Nepal, India, and Bhutan. More than 50 percent of the world’s harvest is produced in India.
There is an African variety called Aframomum found in Madagascar, Somalia, and Cameroon, and another pungent form in West Africa called grains of paradise, which has a similar taste and appears sporadically in the Western market.
Always try to buy black cardamom whole rather than in seed form as it begins to lose its potency and aroma when the skin is removed and seeds are stored without the skin. For the same reason, it is also preferable not to buy the powdered form if whole pods are available. When required for use as a powder, remove and discard the skin, grind the seeds in a clean, dry coffee grinder, and use immediately. Look for fragrant, well-formed pods that are plump, firm, dry, and about an inch in length.
Black cardamom is a key ingredient in India's famous garam masala spice mixture and several other masalas mixes. It is largely used in savory dishes ranging from curries, stews, and daals (lentil dishes) to pilafs, in Indian cooking. It is mostly used whole and almost always fried in a little oil to cause it to fully release its flavors and aroma.
In China, the pods are used for jin-jin braised meat dishes, particularly in the cuisine of the central-western province of Sichuan. Also, black cardamom is an optional ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder mix.
The pods are often used in Vietnam, where they are used as an ingredient in the broth for the pho noodle soup.
Uses Other Than Cooking
Historically, black cardamom has been used to treat various stomach ailments, common infections, and dental problems. In traditional Chinese medicine, in addition to being a treatment for stomach disorders, this spice is used to treat malaria. It is also chewed as a mouth freshener.