Monday, 31 January 2011

The Scent Of Cardamom

 It's been about two weeks since I returned from a truly amazing trip to India with K. After being assailed at every turn by sights, sounds, colours, the warmth of the people, the vibrancy of the food, the chaotic traffic, the wealth and the abject poverty - in short, the full force of life played out right before your very eyes - it was an utter contrast to return to the relative calm and greyness of London in January. Throwing open my suitcase the next morning, I was immediately hit by the heady floral aroma of cardamom wafting out to greet me. As cliched as it sounds, I was immediately transported back to India.

I've always liked the taste of cardamom, but more often than not, it's just something I throw in a pilaf to flavour the rice. In India, however, it's in everything. From our very first morning to our last, cardamom accompanied us like a faithful friend on our trip through the teaming streets of Mumbai and then down south to the lush coolness of Kerala. It started when, to ease us out of our jetlag, our dear friends Kamal & Reva (K's cousins & his wife) made us steaming cups of milky chai infused with freshly ground cardamom, holi (basil) and plenty of sugar - it worked a treat, but I would come to crave it every single morning.

After one particularly hot morning pounding the streets of south Bombay, we headed for a late lunch at the Britannia cafe - one of the last remaining 'Irani cafes' in Bombay. Stepping into the shady coolness of the cafe whose interior hadn't changed for over eight deacdes we were warmly greeted by the 88 year-old owner Boman Kohinoor, who suggested the house specials: Iranian berry pulao (a secret recipe), "two cold lime sodas to cut the Bombay heat" and, to finish, caramel custard. The generous plates of pilaf arrived quickly, speckled with Iranian berries, which looked and tasted like tiny cranberries, and cashew nuts. The basmati rice was strongly fragrant with cardamom and had a hint of cinnamon and cloves. I wolfed it down.

Another afternoon, Kamal kindly surprised me by bringing back some ras malai, a well known dessert of milk dumplings, from Tewari Bros, a local sweet shop famed for the dessert. The dumplings were delicately floating with pistachios in a sweetened milk flavoured with saffron and cardamom and served warm. Everyone laughed as I embarrassed myself by groaning after every spoonful but quite frankly I didn't care - it was divine.

Then down south to Kerala, where cardamom, which is native to the hilly Western Ghats, is known as the "queen of spices". We stayed at Camelia Haven in a wooden cottage set in the verdant greenery of a misty cardamom plantation. For dinner we had an aromatic vegetable curry flavoured with cardamom followed by several games of ping pong before bed.

The next day, we drove through endless banks of tea bushes to take an elephant ride, made a quick pit stop for a creamy pistachio and cardamom kulfi, and then went on to an ayurvedic spice garden where we learned about the the holistic uses for a wealth of different spices. I especially loved the on-site hives where the bees would feed on flowering cardamom bushes and the honeycombs harvested by spinning them in a metal bucket with a turn-handle. The honey is extracted by centrifugal force - leaving the honeycomb intact and the resulting honey deliciously scented with cardamom. It was here that I bought generous bundles of sweet vanilla pods and a large bag of cardamom for a couple of quid (which I later stashed in my suitcase) - the smell was so vibrant and the hue a vivid green so unlike the slightly anaemic specimens gracing my spice shelf at home.

Our last day in Kerala was spent floating idyllically down the backwaters of Alleppy on our very own houseboat. Moored for the night by an expanse of paddy fields, we were cooked an amazing meal of chargrilled peppered king prawns and several vegetable dishes consisting of potato, aubergine and greens - all simply cooked but again all flavoured with cardamom. To end the meal we were offered a couple of fresh cardamom pods to chew to help sweeten the breath and aid digestion.

So you'd think I'd be over cardamom by now or at least need a lengthy break from it - but actually I'm missing it. Last week I felt really cold - the sort of cold which chills you right to the bone. I needed something milky and comforting and then I thought of kheer - a soothing Indian rice pudding infused with cardamom and rosewater. It's traditionally served chilled as a dessert but at this time of year I prefer eating it warm - in fact I had it for breakfast at the crack of dawn yesterday before teaching an early morning yoga class and it was the perfect start to my day.


Serves 3-4
  • 3 tablespoons of basmati rice
  • 600 ml full fat milk
  • 3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/2 - 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • A generous tablespoon of rosewater (trust me it really makes a difference)
  • Optional: chopped pistachios

Soak the rice in enough cold water to cover it for at least half an hour, then drain in a sieve. This helps to soften the rice so it cooks down nicely.

Warm the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and then add the rice and cardamom. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to a very low simmer for 30 minutes. Stir every couple of minutes to prevent the rice from sticking.

When ready remove from the heat and fish out the cardamom pods. Add the sugar according to taste and then stir in the rosewater.

Eat warm or leave to cool and then chill in the fridge for an hour or two before eating. If you wish sprinkle with chopped pistachios.


  1. love your cardamom scented trip review. I love it too but don't use it as much as I should, only in curries.

  2. Thank you Sneaky Magpie! Considering the big bag of cardamoms I need to get through, I've challenged myself to use them much more in my cooking this year before they go stale.

  3. Oooh yum! I love cardamoms too. What amazing things you have tasted, you lucky lady! I actually used to crunch my way through cardamoms back in the day, quite happily...not anymore though!
    And also, I do apologise, because ages ago, you asked me where the cup on my bedside table came from. I'm so behind with my replies at the moment! It actually came from a church sale, and is one of six that we got for 10p each. Lucky finds! Have a nice weekend x

  4. I made rosewater cardamom ice cream at my cooking class a few weeks ago, it was delicious! The cardamom is quite fragrant.

  5. Kerry: I tried to politely chew my way through the cardamom pods offered to me but I just couldn't do it lol. I just knew those cups would be one of your wonderful thrifty finds - thanks for letting me know. Lots of luck with your house-hunting!

    lovely little things: that DOES sound delicious, especially in the summer.

  6. I only have eyes for that Iranian berry pulao! It looks amazing!


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