Black cardamom is a spice also known by the names Nepal cardamom, Greater Indian cardamom, and brown cardamom. It is a member of the Zingiberaceae, or ginger, family. It should not be confused with green cardamom, which has a distinctly different flavor. The Amomum subulatum species is native to the eastern Himalaya region, and production centers in Nepal and Sikkim. Other species of black cardamom grow in southern China, Somalia, Madagascar, and Camaroon.
Although the misconception exists that black cardamom may be used as a cheap substitute for green cardamom, in fact the flavors of the two differ considerably. Green cardamom is much more mellow than the black variety. Its flavor is fresher, with fruit and citrus notes. It has a eucalyptus element, but it is not as intense as that of black cardamom. The latter has a smoky taste, redolent of pine and camphor, with an astringent effect.
The 1.18-inch (3-cm) pods of the black cardamom are sold whole and may be used this way as a flavoring in stews made of vegetables or meats. If used whole, the pods should be removed prior to serving. The seeds may be used crushed or ground. Ideally, whole pods can be purchased and stored in a tightly sealed container, away from light and heat. The seeds should be ground right before using for maximum flavor.
Black cardamom is used as a primary component in the ubiquitous Indian spice blend garam masala, along with coriander seeds, black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. It pairs well with other "heating spices," and is excellent in rice dishes and curries containing either meat or vegetables. Garam masala can be purchased at grocery stores specializing in Indian foods or even at larger supermarkets with well-stocked ethnic foods sections.
Alternatively, chefs can try making their own spice mix for an economical, customizable blend. Garam masala can be made combining 1 tablespoon (5 g) black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons (5 g) cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon (2 g) whole cloves, and 4 large black cardamom pods. To this, 3 tablespoons (15 g) coriander seeds, 1/2 teaspoon (1 g) crumbled bay leaves, 1 teaspoon (2.5 g) ground cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon (2 g) ground ginger should be added.
The peppercorns, cumin, cloves, cardamom pods, coriander, and bay leaves can be toasted by stirring them in a pre-heated, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Once fragrant, the spices should be remove from heat and allowed cool. Then the cardamom pods should be removed and split, with the seeds scraped out into the spice mix. The cinnamon and ginger can then be added.
This mix can then be placed in a clean coffee grinder and processed until all the spices are ground. It should be store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. This recipe makes about 1 heaping quarter-cup (approx. 35 g) of garam masala.