As I write this, by my desk I have a mug of rooibos chai. In the fridge, for breakfast tomorrow, awaits some leftover zelta maize (Latvian for “yellow bread”; maize in this case is pronounced like “my-zay”). In my freezer, there’s a bottle or two of gin. I currently don’t have any Lebanese coffee knocking around, but if I did, it would have something in common with the Indian-inspired chai, the Baltic bread (which has Scandinavian counterparts as well), and the British gin: cardamom, a spice that really gets around.
Cardamom is not the only spice that gets around, of course. Some of the other spices in my chai travel at least as widely – and are often found in the same recipes as cardamom: cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and, of course, ginger. But, for whatever reason, in North American cuisine cardamom is not often used by itself, so people are less likely to have a clear impression of its taste or even awareness of it. And, if Google results are indicative, they have about a 40% chance of getting the name wrong and thinking it’s cardamon rather than cardamom.
Why would they think it’s cardamon? Well, that better-known spice cinnamon very likely has some effect. And rather more polysyllabic words with unstressed final syllables in English end with on than with om. So, given that cardamom is not as common a word (cinnamon gets about six times as many hits on Google as cardamom and cardamon combined; on wordcount.org, cinnamon is ranked 19,469 while cardamom is 58,400), it’s not so surprising that it might be misconstrued.
Anyway, with a slightly different turn of history cardamon could have been the official form: while cardamom comes from Latin cardamomum, from Greek kardamomon, the Greek word in its turn comes from a blend of kardamon “cress” and amomum, the name of a spice plant also called black cardamom – as opposed to green cardamom, which is called true cardamom by some (for instance the Encyclopædia Britannica and The Oxford Companion to Food). Both are used as spices and are called cardamom, as sometimes are some other related plants; green cardamom has the finer flavour. Cardamom has been used as a spice in English cooking since at least the 14th century.* It’s the third-most-expensive spice by weight in the world (after saffron and vanilla), but a little bit goes a long way.
But what does the word cardamom taste like? It undoubtedly gets papery overtones from card, and maternal notes from mom. The start sounds hard, the end sounds soft. It may have floral echoes from chrysanthemum, and ecclesiastical and avian ones from cardinal. Aside from other spices, words it may bring to mind include pods and seeds, but especially ground. And what wine to have it with? For me, the word is a sauvignon blanc kind of word, but its object is definitely more in the gewürtztraminer line.
*Many people, when mention is made of medieval cooking, think of the assertion that has been passed around by email that the spices were used to cover the flavour of the meat, which had become rotten. Oh, of course, those medieval people couldn’t have used spices as we do – because they taste good! Well, in fact, they did use them for that, and also because they were expensive; spices were luxury items, used more often among the rich than among the poor, and the spice trade was one of the important luxury trades that kept traders going around the world in the medieval era and thereafter. As The Oxford Companion to Food says, “spices were a distinguishing mark of medieval cuisine on more than one level, distinguishing rich from poor, town from country, special feasts from ordinary meals. Spices marked the religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, an association which is retained to the present day.” There is no evidence of spices having been used to mask the flavours of rotten meat (please remember: medieval people were not actually incredibly stupid and animalistic) or of salted meats (which were mainly eaten by those who couldn’t afford spices anyway), nor were spices used as preservatives.