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Cardamom is one of the world’s very ancient spices. It is native to the mountainous rain forests of southwestern India and Sri Lanka where it grows wild. A member of the ginger family, cardamom follows saffron and vanilla as the world’s most expensive spices.
Ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner; the Greeks and Romans used it in perfumes. Vikings came upon cardamom a thousand years ago, in Constantinople, and introduced it into Scandinavia, where it continues to remain popular. This highly scented spice has a variety of typical uses, depending on the region. Cardamom has a pleasant flavor and aroma and in India it is used in tea, cool drinks, confectionaries and sweets, as well as vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. People of India consider cardamom to be a digestive aide while Scandinavians employ it as a breath freshener. Cardamom is a popular spice in Northern Africa and Eastern Africa. Cardamom flavors coffee in Saudi Arabia, baked goods in Sweden and ground meat in Norway. The Near East and Scandinavia consume half the world's cardamom. It is more widely used than cinnamon in Sweden. Cardamom coffee is a symbol of Arab hospitality. In the west cardamom essential oil is used as a food flavoring, in perfumery, and for flavoring liquor. The spice is often combined with cloves and cinnamon in all cuisines.
Cardamom is a herbaceous perennial plant belonging to the ginger family. Today it is cultivated in partially cleared tropical rain forests of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mexico, Guatemala, and Tanzania. This bushy herb will grow to a height of 6 to10 feet with erect shoots from a thick, underground rootstock. Cardamom rhizomes from large clumps of growing plants are taken out, separated into small clumps and planted in prepared pits. It thrives best under moderate shade. Cardamom grows abundantly in higher altitudes with a warm humid atmosphere and evenly distributed rainfall. Cardamom plants flower for eight or nine months of the year. Each pod, or capsule, ripens slowly and is plucked when three-quarters ripe. Seeds are collected from well ripened fruits from a healthy plant at least five years old.
India is the world's largest producer of cardamom. Indian cardamom is slightly smaller, but more aromatic. These brownish black seeds of the tropical plant elettaris cardamomum are enclosed inside 1/4”-3/4” long oval shaped pods. The larger variety known as black cardamom is brown in color, and the smaller variety is called green cardamom. Green pods have excellent fragrance compared to the yellow or white bleached ones. After harvest, the pods are washed and dried. The method of drying dictates the final color. White indicates the pods have been dried for many days in the sun leaving them bleached. Green pods have been dried for one day and night in a heated room.
Cardamom is offered commercially in many forms. It is sold as whole pods, seeds and powder. Cardamom seeds are either crushed coarsely or powdered fine before using. These seeds lose their flavour quickly when ground; and it is ideal to buy only whole pods and crush them just before using.
This creamy sweet pudding is made with extremely thin Indian Durham wheat noodles, thinner than angel hair pasta. Two kinds of noodles are available in Indian grocery stores. One is toasted and the other is not toasted. The toasted noodles have a golden brown color. These extremely thin noodles are very easy to break into tiny pieces. Personally, I prefer the toasted noodles.
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
1 cup thin Indian vermicelli (semiya) crushed into tiny pieces
5 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
1½ cups sugar
10 unsalted cashew nuts broken into pieces
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
Heat 1 tablespoon of ghee in a heavy-bottomed skillet and toast the vermicelli over low heat. Keep stirring until the noodles are toasted to a golden brown color. If using toasted noodles, just add them to skillet and stir well to coat the noodles with ghee. This will take only a minute or less. Watch carefully while stirring so that the noodles do not burn and turn dark brown. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.
Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy pot. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and stir in toasted noodles. Cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring periodically to ensure that the noodles do not stick to the bottom of the pot. Pour half and half in a thin stream into the pot while stirring constantly. Add sugar and continue to simmer for another 25 to 30 minutes. Continue to stir the pot every 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let milk boil and rise to the top. After about 30 minutes, milk will be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the pot from the stove and keep it covered to prevent a film from forming on the top. Heat the remaining ghee and fry cashew nuts. When they start turning golden brown, add raisins and keep stirring until they plump up. Pour the ghee along with the nuts and raisins into the cooked milk and noodles. Sprinkle crushed cardamom, and stir gently. Serve warm or cold.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.