If you've ever bitten into a whole cardamom pod while eating an Indian biryani or curry, you will probably push it aside the next time you see it. These small, hard pods are strong and bitter when chewed but taste warm, aromatic and distinctive when used in small quantities.
Cardamom is indigenous to India and is now grown in Sri Lanka, Guatemala and South East Asia. It is the third most expensive spice, after saffron and vanilla. The small, furrowed pods come in black or green varieties. Black cardamom is used mostly in Indian cuisine for savoury, long-simmered dishes, where it is blended with other spices to temper its strong flavour.
With the sweeter, more subtle green cardamom, the tiny, dark brown seeds are usually removed from the hard, inedible pod before being ground to a powder. Green cardamom is used in a wider variety of cuisines than the black variety, and in sweet and savoury dishes. It is popular in India, the Middle East, some African countries, Thailand, Cambodia and in Scandinavia. Usually it is part of a spice mixture, made into ras al hanout (in Morocco), garam masala (in India), European spice breads and cakes, and chai, an Indian spiced, milky black tea. It is also used on its own for other sweet baked goods such as Danish pastries and cardamom cookies.
When buying black or green cardamom, look for firm, unbroken pods. The flavour is released when the seeds are ground or crushed, but flavour and aroma are lost quickly. It is best to grind the seeds in a mortar when you plan to use the spice. If you buy pre-ground cardamom, store the container in the freezer to preserve the flavour.
Cardamom is delicious when combined with saffron, and works well in milk- or cream-based desserts such as custards or ice-cream. For rice pudding, simmer rice with milk, sugar and either a vanilla bean (slit lengthwise and scraped with the tip of a knife to extract the flavourful seeds) or some crushed saffron threads. Mix in ground green cardamom (seeds only) and cook slowly until the rice is tender. Stir in raisins, sprinkle with chopped pistachios and serve hot or cold. Cardamom is also delicious in biscuits and shortbread, especially Middle Eastern types made with chickpea flour, which makes the cookies so delicate they dissolve on the tongue.