After saffron and vanilla, cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is the most expensive spice in the world. The essential oils terpinene, cineol, and limonene make it intensely aromatic. The twenty-five jet black seeds in each green-and-white lanternlike pod simultaneously conjure up the flavors of sassafras, eucalyptus, allspice, cloves, camphor, and pepper. It is amazing how their fragrance can be astringent and offer a delicate warmth at the same time.

This distant relative of ginger appears to have originated in the Kerala Hills in the Western Ghats of southern India, and references to it in ancient Sanskrit texts date back five thousand years to the Late Vedic period. It reached Babylon by 7000 BCE and arrived in Greece no later than 50 CE. Today, the cardamom shrub is widely cultivated from India to Guatemala. There is another variety with larger fruit from Sri Lanka as well.

Linguistically, we can trace the cardamom trade overland into Asia Minor, and by sea to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. The terms for cardamom in the Middle Eastern and East African languages are all quite similar: habbu al-hayl in Arabic; hel in Hebrew, Farsi, and Amharic; and hil in Azeri and Tigriniya. These cognates are derived from ancient Sanskrit eli, ela, or ellka, which likely gave rise to the Hindi and Kashmiri elaichi, the Bengali elach, and the Gujarajati elchi or ilaychi, as well. Curiously, European terms, particularly those in the Romance languages, exhibit a total break with the terms from East Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. They all have their root in the ancient Greek kardamomom, which, according to spice scholar Gernot Katzer, is of uncertain and inexplicable origin. Kardamomom was often linked to a presently unidentified spice, amomon, as was cinnamon, or kinnamomon. One possible hypothesis is that amomon referred to Amomum subulatum, the large cardamom of Nepal and of Sikkim in northeast India, which may have dropped out of use in Europe after Roman times.

The use of cardamom by Bedouins on the Arabian Peninsula is ancient, but it has remained strong to this moment. In fact, many contemporary Bedouin nomads carry coffee pots that have a small chamber in their spouts for holding cardamom pods. Although my close Arab relatives in the Middle East are not Bedouins, they are no less attached to cardamom. When I am in any home in the Bekáa Valley of Lebanon, it seems as though cardamom has insinuated itself into every coffee cup, many rice puddings (roz bi haleeb), and even some morning man’oushé pastries. In fact, “regular,” or mazbûta, coffee in Lebanon is typically served with a pinch of ground cardamom and a drop or two of orange blossom water.

Cardamom is a key ingredient in many of the great spice mixtures of the world, including Yemeni zhoug; Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi baharat; Indian curry powders; blends for chai and khorma; and Malaysian masalas. Cardamom pods are once again finding their way into specialty gins, where they keep juniper berries and cassia bark company.


Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Karaoglan, Aida. Food for the Vegetarian: Traditional Lebanese Recipes. Beirut, Naufal Press, 1987.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- Accessed September 1, 2011.
Ravindran, P.N, and K.J. Madhusoodanan. Cardamom: The Genus Elettaria. London: Taylor and Francis, 2002.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press