Cardamom, often called the ''queen of spices,'' is used in Indian cooking and is believed to have medicinal powers. Native to the Middle East, these expensive pods are hand-picked from a perennial plant in the ginger family. The ground form of cardamom pods is called cardamom powder.
Cardamom powder is used as an ingredient in desserts, such as rice pudding, and in sweet potatoes, curries, stews and garam masala, a spice mixture used in Indian cuisine. The pungent spice lends a citrusy or minty flavor to foods. It has a strong flavor and is used in small quantities.
Throughout history, cardamom has been used for its health purposes. Its benefits stem from its high amounts of volatile oils, such as camphor and eucalyptol. The powder is used to improve digestion, relieve flatulence and stimulate the metabolism. When cooked with garlic and onion, it is said to relieve the gas and heartburn these foods cause.
Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used cardamom powder as an aphrodisiac. The powder is sometimes used in herbal toothpastes. When mixed with a tablespoon of banana leaf and amla juice, it is used as a diuretic. Boiled in water with tea, it is used for treating depression. Gargling with an infusion of cardamom and cinnamon is said to cure a sore throat.
Cardamom comes in three types: green, black and Madagascar. It can be purchased in pod or ground form in grocery stores. The seeds can be used whole or ground into powder in a food processor, with a mortar and pestle, or by crushing with a rolling pin.
According to ''The Food Lover's Companion,'' cardamom begins to lose its essential oils as soon as it's ground, so it's best to purchase in pod form and use soon after grinding. The seeds may be removed from the pods before grinding or the entire pod may be used. The shells will disintegrate while the dish cooks.