- Louie Preciado
I don't know who makes these decisions, but cardamom is frequently called the "queen of spices." OK, fine, its use in cuisines as disparate as Indian and Scandinavian at the very least gives it claims to some diplomatic creds. The question is, however, which cardamom? There are three colors: green, black and white. Let's make things easier by ruling out white. It's merely a bleached version of the green and no less an authority than Cook's Illustrated has deemed it a "significant disappointment."
If we're being sticklers for royal lineage, black has to be ruled out, too, as it's a distant relative not in line for the throne. It does, nevertheless, have its partisans and its uses. One pundit calls it "the bacon of spices," and everybody knows that everything's better with bacon in it—especially long-cooked stews and curries utilizing a lot of dried chiles and lime juice. Ground black cardamom is a component in many garam masala spice blends. It can add kick to lentil dishes and tossed into a pot of cooking rice in its whole-pod form, it adds a welcome depth. On a more local note, it's said to be good as part of a dry rub for brisket.
Green cardamom works with all the above as well—just more subtly. It's an essential component of masala chai, the ubiquitous Indian drink of tea, milk and spices. With or without milk, it's equally good brewed into coffee, especially if using a French press; just use one cracked pod per cup and add a tiny pinch of salt. With either tea or coffee, it couldn't hurt to bring a cardamom-spiced pastry to the party. There are numerous, mostly Scandinavian, recipes online; one with figs and puff pastry caught our eye, but a simple sugar cookie with cardamom, cinnamon and a touch of lemon zest would be equally queenly.
As for the king of spices, you guessed it: black pepper.
Find these flavors at India Palace, 8474 Fredericksburg, Ste 100, (210) 692-5262; India Oven, 1031 Patricia, (210) 366-1030; India Taj Palace, 20323 Huebner, Ste 107, (210) 497-4800; Biryani Pot, 9386 Huebner, Ste 109, (210) 561-8874.