cardamom-spiced meat loaf
Photo: Ann Stratton
Ever since I met my Indian husband, the scent of cardamom has infiltrated my kitchen cabinets. I use it so much that it's migrated from way in the back to the front row, and I reach for it so often that sometimes I don't even bother replacing the lid. During the past year or so, I've noticed that the outside world has begun to smell a lot like my cabinets. Cardamom is everywhere: In a chocolate dessert on a transatlantic flight. In Daniel Boulud's coffee-cardamom petits pots de crème. In an Indian chef's "American" meatloaf. In hundreds of recipes on In a plastic spoonful of chickpeas recently handed to me for tasting as I pushed a cart through a supermarket (a promotion for spice mixtures). In a slew of recent cookbooks, one of which said, "You might think that cardamom had a publicist this year, it has so completely blanketed the food world."

My husband, who grew up eating cardamom in traditional ways, is forever requesting infusions of it into my everyday cooking. Since both of my parents are from North Carolina, region of rice and spice, I don't find the combinations entirely jarring. A recent cardamom-grits experiment (cook Quaker quick grits with ground cardamom, salt, black pepper, a split chile, and a ton of butter) was a satisfying variation on breakfast with my late grandmother Lulubelle and her spinster sister, Eppie, who sometimes sipped bourbon while stirring the grits.

I can only imagine how these apron-clad homebodies might have reacted to cardamom in their skillet, let alone to an Indian relative in their kitchen. I suppose that after getting used the the idea, they'd have tasted my nouvelle southern and offered the nice Indian fellow a whiskey. For all I know, Lulu and Eppie never tasted "foreign" foods like bagels or enchiladas or seaweed. But inevitably, had they been exposed to them, the would have come around. Food is the first step. When it comes to eating, what's intimidating or alien can quickly become absorbed into the household recipe file, taking it's rightful place at the table, in the scrambled eggs, the shortbreads, the casserole. Why? Because it tastes good. Anyway, what was Lulu and Eppie's southern cooking if not African fusion?

Since about the same time that cardamom joined salt and pepper in my spice cupboard, Indian culture in the United States has emerged from its urban enclaves and gone to the mall. Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham are box office nirvana, pashminas are such old news that fashion slaves call them "has-been-a's," and Indian cuisine, once a tentative matter of curried chicken, is everywhere ascendant. Food has always eased the introduction of new cultures into ours. At first culinary ghettos keep the immigrants' dishes at arms' length—in Chinatown, say, or Little Italy, or Curry Row. Or relations are halting, with the wary natives accepting only the newcomers' "signature" dishes—egg rolls, pizza, tacos.

Simultaneously, Americans create our own diluted versions of foreign dishes by using more familiar ingredients: highway diner specials like "spaghetti with red, Italian-style sauce" and "Oriental stir-fry." As recently as ten years ago, in many parts of America, eating raw fish was considered daring. Now sushi places thrive far beyond big cities. The once baffling building blocks of once foreign foods—garlic, jerk sauce, wasabi, edamame, lemongrass—are absorbed into haute cuisine, into mainstream dining out, home cooking, defrosting, microwaving. They show up as dipping sauce at fast-food chains. Jerk Chicken McNuggets, anyone?

Not quite a recent import after all, cardamom is simultaneously being discovered and rediscovered. Discovered because its fresh, sweet, more-exotic-than-cinnamon flavor is new to many people; rediscovered because cardamom has always been here, hiding in plain sight, tucked between the oregano and the cloves and embedded in countless smorgasbords' worth of Swedish meatballs.

A mainstay of Scandinavian and Baltic cooking, Elettaria cardamomum, which comes in green or black pods or in powder form, often sweetens those northerners' breads and coffee cakes. In India, it's chewed as an after-meal digestive or cooked in meats and sweets. Some believe it's an aphrodisiac, and it does add a sexy edge to everything from pot roast to fruit cobbler. A touch of it stirred into creamy rice pudding turns a nursery dishe into grown-up dinner-party fare.

The instructions on the cardamom jar in aisle three (add to sweet potatoes or apple pie) suggest that this spice works for meals as American as Thanksgiving. In my house, we haven't yet figured out how to inject it into hot dogs, but we add it to burgers and pork chops cooked with onions and apples. Sudha Koul, the Kashmiri memoirist and author of the cookbook Curries Without Worries (who's soaked up some local customs during years of raising kids in New Jersey), says she likes to "throw cardamom and cinnamon into the meatloaf." So the meatloaf becomes a sort of kebab. The chopped onion can be replaced with garlic, the parsley with coriander. Some might call it a bastardization, but the shouldn't say that as if it's a bad thing!

Centuries from now, when food historians trace cardamom from the amber cooking fires of the subcontinent to Brooklyn to the Fourth of July picnic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it will have mingled and mated with countless regional traditions. And as mixed marriages and multiethnic families continue to proliferate in this "everything bagel" of a country, cardamom is bound to end up not just in the meatloaf but in the tamales, too.

Get the recipe for Cardamom-Spiced Meatloaf

Amy Finnerty, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, is working on her first novel.

More on Food and Relationships


Next Story