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Cardamom: How Did It Become Scandinavia’s Favorite Spice?

By Steve Dunn Published

It had a long way to travel, since Scandinavia is far removed from the early spice routes.

Known as the Queen of Spices, green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) originated in southern India’s rain forests in a region now known as the Cardamom Hills. The perennial bush, a member of the ginger family, produces shoots at the plant’s base that are picked when they’re just ripening and then dried. The small, oval, three-sided green pods and the resinous black seeds within produce an alluring scent of camphor, mint, and lemon that has made cardamom a sought-after spice for at least 4,000 years.

Today cardamom is cultivated in Sri Lanka and Guatemala in addition to India and is the third most costly spice globally, after saffron and vanilla. Outside of India, it’s primarily used in Arab, Iranian, and North African cuisines, tracing spice trade routes that connected these areas in ancient times. Throughout the Middle East, cardamom scents rice pudding; baklava; and, perhaps most important, qahwah, or cardamom-spiced coffee. It’s the predominant spice in harees, a meat and grain dish served at the break of the Ramadan fast, and it’s an element of the iconic spice blends of the region, such as Morocco’s ras el hanout, Syria’s baharat, and Malaysia’s masala.

It has also become a defining spice in Scandinavia, a region far removed from the early spice routes. According to data from the United Nations, “Sweden consumes 18 times more cardamom per capita than the median country, while Norway consumes almost 30 times more.” 

There are two theories about how cardamom took such a detour. Swedish cookbook author Johanna Kindvall says that many Swedes believe the Vikings brought cardamom to Scandinavia, having encountered the spice in the bazaars of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) about 1,000 years ago. But Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist who studies Viking and medieval food, is skeptical. “We don’t have much evidence of import spices being used during the Viking Age,” Serra said. “Neither archaeological evidence nor references in Viking or Icelandic literature support that cardamom graced Scandinavian kitchens during that era.” 

Serra thinks that the Moors introduced cardamom to Scandinavia after establishing a presence on the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. Danish monk Knud Juul first mentions cardamom in the 13th-century cookbook Libellus de Arte Coquinaria—the first time it shows up in Scandinavian chronicles—and Serra notes that the cookbook, “which is one of the earliest remaining from the medieval period, includes recipes almost identical to Moorish ones.”

Kindvall describes the fragrant cardamom as a “memory smell” for the way it invokes thoughts of Scandinavia. Whether perfuming a glass of glögg, a platter of Swedish meatballs, or a sweet kardemummabulle (cardamom bun), for her, the scent of cardamom is the smell of home.

Recipe Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

For a springtime dessert with a twist, we layer a cardamom-and-lemon-scented batter with jammy rhubarb and a crunchy almond streusel.

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JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.