By Amy Forsberg
I had what seemed like a simple question: How and why did cardamom, the spice native to southern India, become such an essential and beloved baking spice in snowy Scandinavia? I have Swedish ancestry, and absolutely love cardamom bread and other baked goods made with cardamom. In Scandinavian culture, cardamom often represents comfort and home and family and holiday treats–similar to how we in the U.S. view cinnamon, perhaps. (Of course, cinnamon is also of South Asian origin!) I started with some hazy knowledge of the history of the spice trade–that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and ginger spread throughout the world from their places of origin via complex trade routes over the course of many centuries, contributing to the rise and fall of various empires and economies. But I was curious why cardamom, in particular, took root in Scandinavia of all places. Researching that question took me on a fascinating journey through human history and around the world, teaching me much more about the spice trade and about how all of Europe went crazy for spices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Good answers to my questions remained elusive, perhaps lost to history. But the story of the spice trade, and cardamom’s place in it, is an interesting one. So let’s talk about cardamom!
Cardamom is not as well known in the United States as in some parts of the world. The spice known as cardamom is the seed of Elettaria cardamomum, an herbaceous perennial in the ginger family, Zingerberaceae. This is the source of both green and white cardamom, which is just green cardamom that has been bleached and which has a milder flavor. The scent and flavor combines notes of citrus, mint, and pine, and can be described as sweet, spicy, herbal, and floral.
There is a lesser known cousin, black cardamom, that is derived from Amomum subulatum. The pods of black cardamom are larger than the green and have a characteristic smoky flavor imparted during the drying process. Black cardamom is used in Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.
Green and Black Cardamom Seed Pods
Elettaria cardamomum is tropical, needing shade and consistent year-round warmth (temperatures between 50° and 95°F) and humidity in order to flower and fruit. In such a setting, it can reach 15 feet tall! It grows from rhizomes, much like ginger and turmeric, and produces panicles of flowers at the base of the foliage, which then develop into pods containing 15-20 seeds each. Native to the Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, it is now grown commercially primarily in Guatemala, but also in India and Sri Lanka. It is the third most costly spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has been valued for culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Today, it is consumed around the world, but primarily in India and the Middle East, followed by South Asia, the United States, and the European Union.
The earliest recorded use of cardamom is in an ancient Sanskrit text dating to about 3000 BC that lists cardamom as one of the spices to be poured in a sacrificial fire during marriage ceremonies. Use spread throughout the ancient world, and by 100 AD, cardamom was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for cooking, perfumery, and medicine. Both Greece and Rome imported large quantities of cardamom and used it in cuisine as well as medicine. The famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, mentions cardamom, among other imported spices, as a useful medicine—especially as a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Recipes from Apicius, the first-century Roman cookbook, use generous amounts of ginger, pepper, and cardamom. The Persian and Arabian empires imported large quantities of cardamom from India, and their detailed cookbooks and medical texts specify different grades, sizes, and types of cardamom.
Cardamom and other spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, were brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders and were traded in Naples, Venice, and Corsica, among other ports. Those who controlled the trade allowed their customers to remain in the dark as to the original source of the spices for centuries. Ancient historians, such as Pliny, believed cardamom grew in Arabia. The status and allure of these spices was increased by the mystery of their true origin, and this helped keep prices high. Trade involved many middlemen, and few, if any, along the routes knew where the goods had originated or where they would end up. Trade in spices was lucrative because the spices were relatively inexpensive at their source and were compact, lightweight, and non-perishable compared to many other goods. Spice routes were frequently shifting due to wars and power struggles, so by the time the spices reached a final destination, they had changed hands many times and were fantastically expensive. Thus, they were viewed as “high status” and “exotic” luxury goods.
By the early Middle Ages, cardamom and other spices were finding their way up into Northern and Western Europe. The Vikings are commonly credited with bringing cardamom home to Scandinavia after encountering it in Constantinople towards the end of the Viking era in the early 11th century. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist, says in his book, An Early Meal–A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, that this is likely wrong due to a total lack of evidence. The earliest mention of cardamom in Scandinavia is in a 13th century cookbook written by a Danish monk in which the recipes that contain cardamom are nearly identical to Moorish recipes of the same era. Serra thinks the Moors likely introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. According to this theory, cardamom and other spices would have found their way from the Iberian peninsula up to London, and then from London, were traded along a German trade route up into Scandinavia.
The exact details of the how and when cardamom first found its way to Scandinavia may never be proven precisely. But what is well-documented is how all of Europe went spice crazy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom were expensive and fashionable throughout Europe and were used lavishly in large banquets that would feature dozens of types of exotic game birds and meats, sauces and stews, and large quantities of spiced wine. These banquets could last for days and were an important way to display wealth and status.
Green cardamom seeds
The cliché often repeated that spices were used in the Middle Ages to cover the taste of spoiled meat does not stand up to scrutiny. People who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, as spices were more expensive than meat. Food was commonly dried, salted, or pickled to preserve it, and spices are not an effective means of doctoring spoiled meat in any case.
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, and at long last discovered the vast markets where the global spice trade originated. In short order, the Portuguese violently took control of the spice trade and for the first time, imported spices directly to Europe ending the circuitous Arab-controlled trade routes over land from the Middle East into the Mediterranean, and eliminating many middlemen. Prices fell in Europe, and spices came within reach of even “middle class” people for special occasions.
Swedish cardamom roll
In the 1590s, the Dutch took over spice production and trade, and prices dropped even further as supply increased. The “culinary reign” of spices that had lasted in Europe from Roman times through the Renaissance ended in the 1700s. By the 1800s, spices in Europe were plentiful and inexpensive enough to be used daily in foods like breads, cookies, and coffee, but had lost their mystery, glamour, and status. Interestingly, these same spices completely fell out of favor for most savory cuisine throughout Europe. Food was, instead, seasoned primarily with herbs, wine, and cheeses, much as today. This transition came first to Southern Europe and then spread gradually into Northern Europe. Spices largely disappeared from European cuisine, with the notable exceptions of saffron in Spanish paella and cardamom in Scandinavian baked goods and desserts.
Again, the question of why Scandinavia, in particular, held onto the use of cardamom, in particular, is difficult to answer. Daniel Serra speculates that, because Scandinavia is on the fringes of the continent, it clung to medieval food ways longer—”outposts” are often slower to adopt changes and new styles. This is not a complete or satisfying answer, though. It is true, however, that the unique flavor of cardamom marries perfectly with sweet, yeasted bread dough, and that a good cardamom bun or braided loaf is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with coffee and shared with friends!
Scandinavian Coffee Braid
(From Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas. Also known as vetebröd in Sweden or pulla in Finland, this sweet yeast dough is versatile; it can be shaped into braids (as in this recipe) or made into buns known as kardemummabullar.)
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water (105°F -115°F)
- 2 cups milk, scalded to 170°F and cooled
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly crushed cardamom
- 4 eggs, slightly beaten
- 8-9 cups flour
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
- 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- ½ cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast bubbles. Stir in the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and four cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the butter.
Gradually stir enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Wash and grease the bowl, and set it aside.
Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until it is smooth, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, turning the dough to grease it on all sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 ½ – 2 hours. Punch down. Turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.
To make three braided loaves: Divide dough into 3 parts. Divide each part into three portions. Roll each portion into a 30” long rope. Braid three ropes together to make a loaf. Pinch the ends together, and tuck them under the loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves with the egg and milk mixture and sprinkle with the sliced almonds and/or pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake. Cool on racks.
Photo Credits: 1) Green cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 2) Green cardamom plant (Creative Commons, https://snl.no/kardemomme); 3) Green cardamom flower (Creative Commons, Reji Jacob, Mukkoottuthara, Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state) and black cardamom flower (Wikimedia Commons by Praptipanigrahi – own work); 4) Green and black cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 5) Trade route map (Wikipedia, George Tsiagalakis); 6) Spices (Creative Commons); 7) Map of Scandinavia (mapsofeurope.net); 8) Painting of Renaissance banquet (hisour.com); 9) Green cardamom seeds (C. Moore); 10) Swedish pastry interlude: a cardamom roll at the Vasa Museum cafe, Creative Commons by alykat); 11) Scandinavian coffee braid (Wikipedia).
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
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Amy Forsberg lives in Maryland and gardens full-time at Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C., where she cares for the Japanese Style Garden. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.