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Jennifer Jasinski demonstrates cardamom’s savory side in her Cardamom-Scented Pork Belly with Curried Garbanzo Bean Purée at Denver’s Rioja restaurant. Photo credit: Rioja

Bringing this powerhouse spice forward

Cardamom, the distinct spice with warm, aromatic, earthy, citrusy notes, has made subtle moves onto mainstream menus over the last few years. It has taken star turns in everything from coffee to cocktail, dessert to baked good and braised dish to shareable dip. Cardamom is a spice of subtle contradictions that adds that “I’m not sure what this is, but I like it” element to both sweet and savory dishes.

Calling out cardamom as a key menu descriptor is a smart move today, given its intrigue factor and growing familiarity with a number of consumers—thanks in large part to its abundant use in a host of trending global cuisines, including Eastern Mediterranean, Indian and North African.

There are two primary types of cardamom, each made distinct by variations in color, flavor, origin and cost. Green cardamom, with roots in southern India, is the more prolific of the two, and its flavors line up with the descriptors outlined above.

Black cardamom is less common on menus. It’s native to the eastern Himalayas with a strong smoky flavor, along with a cooling effect, similar to mint. Today’s broader opportunity lies firmly with the more common green cardamom.

Appeal “I love cardamom! I find the unique flavor to be intriguing and appealing to the American palate. It’s aromatic and lends itself to many applications that are both sweet and savory.”

Application “The unique flavors of cardamom can be used in a variety of ways. You can leverage its smoky undertones to highlight flavors in a soup or a braise or use its floral notes in a dessert or even a beverage. I recently saw a cardamom ice cream and an orange-cardamom beverage.”

WILLIAM EUDY, CORPORATE EXECUTIVE CHEF, FOCUS BRANDS INTERNATIONAL

THE “IT” FACTOR

In Asian cuisines, cardamom demonstrates a versatility that is now making its way here, flavoring everything from masalas to curries to beverages. It’s also a staple in wildly differing global cuisines, such as Middle Eastern and Nordic. A number of Middle Eastern stews, meat and rice dishes are flavored with cardamom, which is also a key ingredient in both Turkish coffee and Afghan tea. In several Nordic countries, cardamom stars in traditional baked goods, including cardamom buns and Yule bread.

Cardamom is gaining a greater foothold on modern American menus as chefs use its attributes to create unique aroma and flavor experiences. This innovation is not surprising, given the ongoing impact and influence of a broad range of Asian cuisines from Indian to Korean, Thai to Filipino. Chefs tease out elements from these cuisines through varied applications.

Modern French restaurant L’Opossum in Richmond, Va., offers a prime example with its appetizer of Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras tucked into a cardamom-spiced acorn squash. In Austin, Texas, Southern-Asian fusion restaurant The Peached Tortilla menus Coconut-Cardamom Rice as part of its Ahi Tuna Poke Bar.

When it comes to entrées, cardamom is still most prevalent in dishes like Indian kormas, koftas, masalas and curries, but its reach is expanding. Hip café Sqirl in Los Angeles leans into several Asian influences with its Long-Cooked Chicken and Rice Porridge that features a cardamom ghee along with Kokuho Rose brown rice, dried lime, ginger and turmeric. And Gabriel Kreuther’s eponymous Manhattan French restaurant uses a red verjus-cardamom beurre rouge to flavor its Grilled Blue Shrimp entrée. Cardamom is paired with distinctly European flavors at American-coastal restaurant Sandbar, in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., in the seasonal Double-Cut Pork Chop featuring an orange-cardamom sauce.

The Mousse at Grampa’s Pizzeria in Madison, Wis., balances cardamom with strong chocolate, coffee and burnt orange flavors and is served with grapefruit and sliced almonds.Photo credit: Shannon Rajchel

The Mousse at Grampa’s Pizzeria in Madison, Wis., balances cardamom with strong chocolate, coffee and burnt orange flavors and is served with grapefruit and sliced almonds.

With its fragrant, hard-to-pin-down flavor notes, cardamom continues to be well-suited on dessert menus, as evidenced by everything from the Cardamom-Rose Cake at Philadelphia’s vegan restaurant Vedge to the Lemon Ice Box Pie with cardamom honey at Houston’s Rainbow Lodge. The spice can be counted on to add exotic, nuanced flavor notes that make for standout sweet endings.

Appeal “Cardamom offers an exotic taste profile and has so many applications, from beverages to spice blends to baked goods. It is still a bit of an unexpected flavor.”

Application “Dukkah with cardamom can be sprinkled over fresh ricotta or a thick yogurt with grilled peaches or other seasonal fruits. You can also infuse it into a syrup for a cocktail or nonalcoholic beverage. Add some to pistachio-shortbread cookie dough or in the cinnamon swirl of sticky almond buns. I really like it with fruits, a favorite being in a spiced-sour cherry chutney. Lemony hummus is also another great candidate for a touch of ground cardamom. The possibilities are endless.”

KATHY CASEY, PRESIDENT & CEO, KATHY CASEY FOOD STUDIOS—LIQUID KITCHEN, DISH D’LISH

THE CHAI IMPACT

For many Americans, introduction to cardamom came courtesy of chai beverages, which have enjoyed significant growth and flavor-driven innovation in this country. Over the past year, “chai,” as both a menu descriptor and a beverage item, has grown on menus more than 27 percent, according to Datassential. Indeed, as chai has expanded beyond the drinks menu to become a full-fledged flavor system, cardamom is now a featured player in dishes that leverage the steadfast popularity of chai.

One natural evolution moves chai from the non-alc space to cocktails, such as the Chai Old Fashioned with cardamom bitters seen at Redstone American Grill, headquartered in Wayzata, Minn., and the Maple Chai cocktail featuring chai tea syrup at Cleveland-based Barrio Tacos.

And while chai and cardamom may continue to find a niche in beverage applications, Claire’s Corner Copia, a vegetarian restaurant in New Haven, Conn., showcases a great use of chai in a modern dessert application with its Persian Cardamom Cake with housemade chai frosting.

Up until recently, most chai menuing did not call out the cardamom, but, today, the spice is getting name checked with greater frequency. For example, cardamom is now a callout ingredient for Panera’s Chai Tea Latte and the Herbal Red Chai Rooibos Tea at Roister in Chicago.

Whether innovating within the chai flavor system or spinning innovative creations, menu developers are discovering cardamom’s unique flavor narrative.

Appeal “Not only does it provide a different take on flavor that we aren’t used to in the States, but it also has an incredible list of health benefits. It’s been linked to a reduction in cancer, maintains blood pressure, reduces inflammation, is a natural detox and helps regulate blood pressure. There’s also a mystique about it. It’s a spice that has amazing ethereal properties if used judiciously. And while most people can’t point to it, they know something’s different when it’s present.”

Application “It is one of those spices that can go from sweet to savory dishes and from cold to hot beverages. It works in dressings and sauces. Pair it with a touch of star anise, and it’s amazing in flan. It’s great with starches, vegetables and braised preparations. It’s incredibly versatile. You could work it into a digestif, paired with an amaro, to help improve digestion, then pour that infused amaro over gelato. Or toast the cardamom and grind it onto crispy chickpeas, into mulled wine, onto summer berry cobblers or into pancakes for an adult brunch.”

MATT HARDING, SENIOR VP OF CULINARY AND MENU INNOVATION, THE PIADA GROUP

MENU SIGHTINGS

Salmon “Dulet”: Fresh salmon cooked with onions, garlic, jalapeños and mitmita (an Ethiopian spice blend with bird’s eye chile, cardamom, cumin, black peppercorns, cinnamon and sea salt)
—Barcote Ethiopian Restaurant, Berkeley, Calif.

Mousse: Chocolate, cardamom, coffee, and burnt orange, topped with grapefruit and almonds
—Grampa’s Pizzeria, Madison, Wis.

Grilled Triple Lamb Chops with Moroccan lamb merguez sausage, parsnip gratin, grilled scallions, haricots verts, baby carrots, crispy paprika chickpeas and cardamom-port reduction
—The Remington Restaurant at St. Regis Houston

Crème Brûlée with mango-mint salad, red currant gelée, cardamom cake and mango sorbet
—Deuxave, Boston

Whisky Cappuccino: Cardamom cream, toasted cinnamon crunch, espresso gelato and Japanese whisky foam
—Nobu Restaurant, based in New York

Zeppole: Fried dough in cardamom and sugar, served with chocolate, caramel sauce and zesty whipped cream
—Pizza Rock, based in Las Vegas

Pear Frangipane Pie: Fresh pears cooked down with Riesling and star anise, layered over frangipane and topped with brown butter-cardamom-sugar crumbles
—Pop Pie Co., San Diego

Source: Flavor on the Edge: Cardamom | Flavor & The Menu