Black cardamom is a popular Indian spice, called badi elaichi or kali elaichi, that is used in many of the cuisine's signature dishes. It is in the form of seed pods, which are dark brown to black in color and take on a smokey flavor due to the way they are dried. Cardamom is used for its bold and assertive taste and is the world's third-most expensive spice, surpassed in price per weight only by vanilla and saffron. Both the pods and the seeds are used in cooking and available year-round.
What Is Black Cardamom?
Black cardamom's scientific name is Amomum subulatum. It grows in pods on an herbaceous plant belonging to the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. The pods have a tough, dried, wrinkly skin, are roughly one inch in length, and house small, sticky, dark-colored seeds. Black cardamom has a pungent aroma with a citrus and eucalyptus flavor.
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.
Varieties of Black Cardamom
There are at least two species of black cardamom: amomum subulatum and amomum tsao-ko. The type used in Indian cuisine is amomum subulatum, which is smaller than the amomum tsao-ko version, the black cardamom used in Chinese cooking.
There is also 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.
Black Cardamom vs. Green Cardamom
There are two main types of cardamom: black and green. Green cardamom pods come from the Elettaria cardamomum plant and are harvested before they mature, while black pods are picked much later and then dried over a fire. In recipes, black cardamom should not be used if a recipe calls for green cardamom as the two pods have extremely different taste profiles. (Green can be used in place of black, but the signature smokiness will be absent.) Whereas green cardamom contributes a subtle, delicate taste to dishes, black cardamom packs a punch. Unlike green cardamom, which is a popular Scandanavian ingredient, the black variety of this spice is rarely used in sweet dishes due to its strong smokey and menthol flavors.
When using green cardamom, it is recommended that the seeds be removed from the pods and ground before adding to recipes. The black cardamom pods are best when added whole to a recipe and removed before serving.
What Does It Taste Like?
Black cardamom is dried over an open fire creating a distinct smoky aroma and flavor. This spice also has notes of resin and camphor, as well as menthol, a 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.
Cooking With Black Cardamom
The black cardamom pods are mostly used whole and almost always fried in a little oil to cause it to fully release its flavors and aroma. Before adding to a dish, the pods can also be crushed slightly to reveal the seed. When a recipe calls for black cardamom powder, remove and discard the skin, grind the seeds in a clean, dry coffee grinder, and use immediately. You can also grind the whole pod and strain through a colander to remove the outer skin.
The black cardamom pods benefit from long, slow cooking times in moist heat, and work well with other strong-flavored spices. If using ground, a little goes a long way, so the spice should be used sparingly.
Recipes With Black Cardamom
Black cardamom is largely used in savory Indian dishes ranging from curries, stews, daals (lentil dishes), and pilafs. In China, the pods are used for jin-jin braised meat dishes, particularly in Sichuan cuisine, and in Vietnam, they are used as an ingredient in pho noodle soup.
Where to Buy Black Cardamom
Ground cardamom will be easier to find than the whole pods. Black cardamom pods should be available at Indian food markets, gourmet markets, and very well-stocked grocery stores, while the ground version is often in the supermarket spice aisle. Always try to buy black cardamom whole rather than in seed form as this spice begins to lose its potency and aroma once the skin is removed. For the same reason, it is also preferable not to buy the powdered form if whole pods are available; pods are also less expensive than ground cardamom. Look for fragrant, well-formed pods that are plump, firm, dry, and about an inch in length.
As with most spices, black cardamom should be stored in a well-sealed container away from light and heat. The pods will remain fresh for about a year while the ground black cardamom will retain its flavor for only a few months.