Ah… she’s thinking meatballs, I’m thinking sweet buns. Yum any way you try it, but who knew all this? Terri!
In the year 7000 BCE, the city of Jericho had a population of nearly 2,000 people, and they had developed crops of barley and wheat. Beer was still a thousand years away from discovery. The Jiahu people of central China had begun experimenting with a proto-cuneiform, inching the world closer to written language. And in India, cardamom was grown for export, in trade with Babylon.
If you’re counting, that’s 9000 years. Nine. Thousand. Years. 9000! That the words, “Yes, get me some more cardamom, please,” have been coming out of peoples’ mouths. We are more alike than different, even unto our ancients.
Cardamom, a cousin of ginger, is a chameleon. It is at once woodsy, citrusy, smoky, and sweet, and performs with equal vigor in baked sweet goods or in savory meals. I will attest myself that a touch added to my coffee—no more than 1/8 teaspoon—sends said coffee into the metaphorical stratosphere. Yeah… it’s that good.
Curiously, despite being a tropical plant that grows in climates with temperatures that do not descend below 35°F, cardamom has become an integral part of Scandinavian cooking. And by integral, I mean that Sweden consumes more than 18 times as much cardamom as most of the rest of the world, except for India and the Middle East. Norway consumes 30 times as much. Conventional wisdom says the Vikings brought cardamom back to Scandinavia with them after a standard-issue sacking of Constantinople about a thousand years ago, and that’s how the Swedes ended up with their funky citrus-woodsy-sweet meatballs.
With deeper research, academics are now challenging that presumption, stating a lack of evidence that points to Vikings. By 1050CE, according to trade documentation, cardamom had only made it as far north as Germany, and there are no cookbooks or records that show Vikings included cardamom trading as one of their many talents. Thanks to a current, copious application of academic elbow grease, there are more and more food historians that think cardamom did not come to Scandinavia as a happy side effect of a sacking but rather, thanks to the Moors. Established on the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, Moorish recipes began showing up in Danish cookbooks in the 1200s, two full centuries after the supposed Viking cardamom introduction.
A natural digestive, cardamom has been used historically to alleviate stomach problems. There’s some interesting research that indicates cardamom to be effective in the prevention and treatment of stomach ulcers, primarily by acting as a natural antibiotic to the Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria commonly linked to ulcer formation. Recently, cardamom and cardamom oil have been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which helps improve heart health. It’s been shown to counter the effects of a high-fat diet by preventing the formation of abdominal fat, improve glucose intolerance, and inhibit the inflammation of liver tissue. And! The ancients chewed cardamom seeds for years, both because it’s yummy and because it helps keep gums healthy.
Cardamom delivers organ-friendly overall health benefits, while managing to balance savory-sweet deliciousness. It’s diversity is reflected in its popularity, being much beloved in both India and Scandinavia…and in the rest of the world. While I may not be able to thank my Viking ancestors for furthering cardamom’s global popularity a thousand years ago, I can thank them for their surprising use of it in meatballs.