What starts as a small, fresh green pod tucked under the cool shade of some pretty impressive trees evolves into something truly precious, fragrant and even highly sought after. This is cardamom: the spice responsible for giving everything - from masala chai to Middle Eastern coffee and rice pilafs - their rich, intense aroma.
"[Its] complex flavor is difficult to describe: part nostril-widening menthol, part dew-drenched flower, part honeyed syrup," wrote Max Falkowitz of Serious Eats.
It's the third most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla, and grows in countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and parts of Indonesia. Today, India, or specifically the state of Kerala, remains one of the biggest exporters of the spice. Cardamom grows in abundance in the hills of Munnar and Thekkady and forms a major part of the economy in a state where nearly half of its people depend on agriculture as a source of income.
In recent years, this livelihood has been increasingly threatened. Cheaper exports from Guatemala, which started farming and exporting the spice just a century ago, are fast replacing Indian cardamom. "Guatemalan cardamom is selling at $6-8 per kg. In comparison, the Indian variety is priced at around $12 per kg," said Anjo Jose, executive director of Mas Enterprises, in an interview with India's The Economic Times.
But what exactly goes into this higher price, and is it justified? I booked a trip to Kerala to see for myself the production of cardamom and the expertise around its production that justifies this higher pricing.
Long before the spice is packed, weighed and shipped across the globe, it must first be harvested. Cardamom trees are essentially rhizomatous plants that send out lanky stems reaching four metres into the sky. But harvesting isn't difficult as the plants bear pods (or “cardamom capsules” as they are also called) at their base.
I am given one to taste. I pull the thick green outer skin apart and it reveals fresh grey seeds, beckoning me for a taste. I pop a few in my mouth and wow - there's an explosion of cardamom flavours on my tongue. No wonder Indians love chewing on cardamom as a mouth freshener.
The best of the MICHELIN Experience in your inbox
Stay on the top of the best restaurants, offers, lifestyle, and events recommended in our guide cities.Subscribe
Once picked, the fresh cardamom pods are taken to high-temperature driers to dry out. Post-drying, the pods are sorted into different grades either manually by skilled women or by machines at larger-scale operations. The Indian cardamom grading system is based on size (diameter), weight and color. The highest grade of Indian cardamom is known as Extra Bold, 8mm (8mm being the diameter of the pod). There are an astounding 25 grades of Indian cardamom such as Alleppey Green Extra Bold (AGEB), Bold, Superior and Light, all primarily driven by size and weight. After grading, each batch of cardamom is sent to an auction house.
Cardamom auctions are held at the local Spices Park, a facility created by the Spices Board of India. The latter is a regulatory organisation formed by the government to ensure quality among all spice exports. The industry is taken so seriously that professional cardamom dealers — yes, cardamom dealers — gather almost daily at the Spices Park cardamom auctions to bid on large batches of cardamoms procured directly from farms.
The dealers determine the per kilo market rate for cardamom and purchase the spice wholesale. Thus, the daily pricing of cardamom fluctuates depending on the goings-on at the cardamom auction. The latest cardamom pricing can be found in the local newspaper in Kerala, along with the latest daily pricing of black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and other spices.
Just before entering the main auction room, tons of cardamom samples are put on display on a notice board in tiny ziplock bags specifying lot numbers and the size
(weight) of each lot.
Inside, the atmosphere is a quiet, focused buzz. Rows of traditionally clad dealers sit in front of computer screens while a few senior officials sit at the front of the room, weighing out different batches. There are a few large screens on either end of the room, and hundreds of dealers are sampling batches of cardamom prior to bidding. The suppliers do this by literally flinging cardamom into a small bowl in front of each bidder. Let’s just say they miss so cardamom is everywhere: on the tables, on the floor, on chairs.
The interesting part is that the cardamom is never tasted, but instead the quality is judged by size and weight and visual flawlessness. Even cardamom seeds (sans pod) go to auction during my visit. The seeds are primarily used in spice blends and mixes such as garam masala or chai spice. The bidding time for each lot is short, and the winner is immediately informed via the computer screen and handed a few small bags of the lot he is purchasing. The next step for the dealer is to complete the paperwork and payment. The dealers then supply to wholesalers and traders within the domestic market.
Back in Thekkady, the town is teeming with spice wholesalers. The dealers can be seen making their rounds here. I see scores of Arab tourists buying up kilos and kilos of cardamom to take back home. “Madam, look how green and huge these pods are. Beautiful!” each wholesaler tells me. The going rate for cardamom is 1,200 Rupees (S$24) per kilo that week for the 8mm Bold variety. I ask for organic cardamom and the wholesalers grumble about how ugly and pale the organic cardamom pods are compared to their gorgeous green sisters.
Weeks later, I am back home in Singapore, quietly sipping on a steaming cup of masala chai, a daily 4 pm ritual, and the whiff of crushed cardamom takes me back to my cardamom spice adventures in Kerala. I was fortunate to have witnessed a new side to this precious and revered queen of spices. Despite costing more than its Guatemalan cousins, the quality of Keralan cardamom is far more exquisite and the grading process makes the small extra cost well worth it.