Just a dash of the aromatic, sweet-spicy and wonderfully warming clove and cardamom is perfect for those chilly winter days.
An indispensable part of most cuisines across the globe, clove and cardamom bring a beautiful aroma and a delicious spicy kick to the food. Whether they’re used in the Turkish baharat, Indian garam masala, North African ras el hanout or the Chinese five spice powder, these tiny dried flower buds and fruits are unanimous with flavour.
Apart from transforming the dish, the spices also have a host of health benefits. Often used to counter the winter chill, clove and cardamom can combat several other ailments, which make them essential to traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as well as time – honoured home remedies across cultures.
C-love is all you need
Native to the Maluku Islands, an archipelago within Indonesia, cloves are now grown all over the world – from Brazil and the West Indies in the West right across to Mauritius, Madagascar, Tanzania, India and Sri Lanka in the East. Interestingly enough, the Indonesians are least likely to use the spice in their cooking. Instead, they prefer to pack it into a cigarette they call kretek.
Clove clusters are handpicked twice a year, before the buds bloom into a full-sized flower. The spice, which needs a tropical climate to thrive, needs a dry summer for harvesting and drying. In summer the Tanzania’s Pemba Islands, one of the largest producers of clove, sheets of sack cloths covered in bright red cloves are left to dry under the summer sun. Over time, the flower buds shrivel up into the rusty brown cloves can find even in the supermarket right across the street. And just like any other spice, it is always best to buy the dried flower buds whole rather than powdered. Squeeze a clove between your fingers as a little trick to tell the good ones from the bad. Good cloves will release a bit of oil.
The aromatic spice is a staple for curries in South and Middle Eastern Asia, and is typically used to flavour meats. It is also used in various rice dishes like pilafs. Mexicans use the spice in their quintessential mole sauce; the Jamaicans won’t have their jerk seasoning without it and in Europe and North America, cloves are often used to add a spicy kick to desserts like sweet breads, marmalade, pies, cookies or cakes.
Thanks to eugenol in the clove, the spice works well as an anti-inflammatory. Clove is also known to regulate blood sugar and is an excellent source of manganese, which is found in the bones, liver, kidneys and pancreas. Apart from acting as a mouth freshener, chewing on cloves can be quite relieving for a toothache. According to Ayurveda as well as ancient Chinese medicine, cloves are good for digestion. While Ayurveda trusts the spice to rid stomach ulcers, vomiting, and flatulence, the Chinese treat hernia, diarrhoea and athlete’s foot with the help of cloves.
Seeds in a pod
Often referred to as the “Queen of Spices”, cardamom is grown in abundance in its native evergreen forests of southern India. But just like clove, this spice has also travelled across the globe and found a home in Guatemala (now the largest producer in the world), Tanzania, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Honduras, and Papua New Guinea.
Cardamom, which comes from the ginger family, has intoxicatingly complex aromas. It incorporates camphor, pine needles, lemon, mint, pepper, and floral notes, which help add a wonderful depth to your dish. The spice, which held a coveted place in Indian kitchens even in ancient times, finds a mention in the country’s early texts. But while South Asians tend to use the spice to flavour their biryani, curries, or even masala chai, for Arabs cardamom spells a cup of hot Arabic coffee, or ghawa. Like clove, cardamom is used in spice mixes across the globe and in the West, is often used in desserts.
Apart from the more commonly found green cardamom, you will also find white and black cardamom in the markets. Green cardamom bleached to temper the dominating menthol and push the sweeter, mellower flavour, is known as white cardamom. It is preferred in Scandinavian baked goodies that call for a sweeter aroma. Black cardamom, on the other hand, has a completely different flavour profile. These cardamom pods, which thrive in the cold climes of the Himalayas, must be dried over open flames. This gives the spice a smoky, piny, peppery character, making it ideal for game meat, lamb or goat. The smokiness of the flavour also blends perfectly with tandoori food.
While buying cardamom, remember it is best to buy whole pods rather than ground seeds. When exposed to air or heat, the spice quickly loses its flavour and aroma, so remember to store the pods away from direct light and in an airtight container. Just before using it, pop the pods open in a mortar and pestle.
If you don’t have one, just tap them lightly using the back of a knife blade or a rolling pin. Inside, you should see the seeds clustered in groups, coated with a sticky resin – this means the cardamoms are fresh. Separate the seeds from the husks, but don’t throw the latter away, you can always toss them in your cup of tea or coffee. After all, cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world – outstripped only by saffron and vanilla!
Belonging to the ginger family, cardamom stimulates the digestive juices, aiding the body in the process of digestion. It also helps combat nausea, acidity, bloating, gas, heartburn, loss of appetite and constipation. Known to be a wonderful detoxifier, the spice cleanses the urinary tract, bladder, and kidneys, removing waste, salt, excess water, toxins. It may also improve circulation to the lungs, ridding the organ of infection. In South Asia, green cardamom is also used to treat gum infections and to prevent other teeth troubles. Another variety of the spice, grown in China, Laos and Vietnam, is used to treat stomach issues, constipation and dysentery.
Recipe of Cardamom/Saffron Scented Tea
4 cups/1 litre/34fl oz water
4 black tea bags (or 2 teaspoons loose-leaf black tea)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
Boil water. Dip the tea bags in the boiling water and let it brew for 4-5 minutes.
Remove tea bags and discard.
Add lemon juice, honey, and cardamom to the boiling water and stir well.
Add saffron and let the brew stand another 5 minutes.
Strain tea into glasses and enjoy.