Spice Talk: Healthy and Heavenly

Spice Talk: Healthy and Heavenly

In the tropical forests of East Asia (and now Central America) grows an intensely aromatic spice in a small green pod. Let’s see if you can guess what it is. It is a key ingredient in chai and Indian cuisine. It’s used in baking in Scandinavia. It’s an important herb in Chinese, Ayurvedic and other traditional systems of medicine. It is combined with coffee in the Middle East. After saffron and vanilla, it’s the world’s third most expensive spice. And it happens to be a key ingredient in our Balance essential oil blend.

I’m taking about cardamom. Just thinking about it makes me want to go get a jar and inhale while I write this. It has such a unique and potent scent that, while many find it absolutely heavenly, others may feel it’s a bit strong. If you’re not already familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to try some. There are lots of good reasons why – both culinary and medicinal.

First, let’s talk medicine. In Chinese medicine, four different kinds of cardamom are used. While each has its nuances and special functions, the primary focus of all four is the digestive system. They are beneficial for nausea, vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, hiccups, bloating, and pain in the abdomen. The species that’s closest to what we call cardamom (known as “bai dou kou”) is considered to primarily affect the digestion and lungs. It stops vomiting, improves the appetite, expels gas, clears phlegm, and opens the chest.

Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) ascribes many of the same functions to cardamom. It’s called “ela,” and it’s considered to stop vomiting, belching, and acid reflux. It improves absorption of nutrients from the intestines. It helps eliminate mucus from the lungs and digestive tract. When added to milk, it is thought to reduce milk’s mucus-forming properties; and when added to coffee, it’s thought to help counter any harmful effects of caffeine. Finally, The Yoga of Herbs notes that it “stimulates the mind and heart, and gives clarity and joy.” Who couldn’t use a little of that?

Beyond these uses, cardamom is widely chewed and incorporated into gums and mints for its ability to control bad breath. It may also be useful for mouth sores, and infections and inflammation of the mouth and throat. In common with its relatives ginger and turmeric, it has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

If you’re a coffee drinker, adding cardamom to your coffee is a good way to try it. I know you’re probably used to having your coffee taste just like coffee, but these two flavors really work well together. In my opinion, the best way to combine them is to put about five to ten cardamom pods into your coffee grinder with enough beans for one or two cups. Grind them together, brew them in a French press at 200 degrees for just a couple minutes, strain, add organic milk or cream, and drink. The cardamom makes both the coffee and the milk easier on the body.

Other dairy products also benefit from the addition of cardamom. Although I don’t really recommend things like ice cream and puddings, if you’re going to eat them, they’ll not only be more delicious with some cardamom, but also better assimilated by the body. Besides ice cream, many people find other cold foods and drinks, including juices, yogurt, and smoothies, difficult to digest, and as a mildly warming spice, a dash of cardamom can help. If you fall in love with this spice and are looking for more ideas, a quick web search will take you to hundreds of great recipes.

When buying cardamom, keep in mind that the spice is the little brown seeds inside the pod. The pod doesn’t have much taste and just adds fibrous bits to whatever you use it in. However, when you buy cardamom without the pod (decorticated), it loses its aromatic potency quickly. For this reason, I usually purchase it in the pod. Look for pods that are more green, rather than pale. Also remember that heat can destroy cardamom’s delicate scent, so, when cooking with it, use low heat, just a few minutes, and/or add it near the end of the cooking process.

Bon appetit,

Dr. Peter Borten

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