Wednesday, June 03, 2009

In Praise of an Underappreciated Spice (Or, Another Instance in which the Leadin is Longer than the Main Attraction)

Being a reasonably strict lacto-ovo vegetarian in Japan is no easy feat. While not the hardcore red meat consumers Americans are, it still isn't a very veg-friendly food culture. Most Japanese dishes, even one as seemingly innocuous as miso soup, are seasoned with 本だし hondashi, a stock made from boiled 鰹節katsuobushi (smoked bonito) and 昆布 kombu (a type of kelp). When I lived in Tokyo in the 90's, my constant companion was a guide to vegetarian, organic and health food restaurants in the city. Through this portable lifesaver I discovered 香林坊 Korinbo, a veggie hole-in-the-wall run by the gracious Taiwanese Reian-san and located upstairs at the back of the bizarre Nakano Sun Plaza*. Another favorite was Gu (and not just for the name), an organic/ brown rice joint in Shimokitazawa.

And yet from time to time I still found myself adrift in the megalopolis, in need of a quick meal, with nary a health food restaurant in sight. My options then, if I was lucky, were Italian or Indian. So I ended up eating a fair amount of decent Italian and mediocre Indian food (the latter mostly from chains).

I did stumble upon the occasional gem. In a second floor room above the shops lining the road to Inokashira Park in Kichijyoji was a tiny, cluttered Indian restaurant called かるだもーん Cardamom. It was run by a genuine Indian man (cook) and his Japanese wife (server). Going there was a bit like eating at a friend's place, a feeling no doubt enhanced by the constant presence of the couple's 3 year old son and infant daughter. Now that I've had a lot more experience with Indian food, I'm not quite sure how the food at Cardamom would stack up. But to my less experienced tongue, it was nothing short of a revelation. Japanese food is indeed lovely, but there's very little spice involved. Most of the seasoning comes from dashi, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and soy sauce. Sometimes I craved something... more. Unlike the insipid dishes server by restaurant chains like Samrat, they pulled no punches at Cardamom. No concession was made to the delicate Japanese palate. Rather, the flavors were complex, rich. Spicy. When I first began to eat there, my ignorance was such that I did not even know what cardamom was. Now it is perhaps my favorite spice.

Cardamom A member of the ginger family, there are, apparently, two varieties. Here I'll stick to Elettaria, the green variety I am familiar with. Elaichi in Hindi, this fragrant spice is commonly used in traditional Indian sweets like kir (rice pudding). My favorite masala chai is made by adding
crushed cardamom pods and ginger to black tea leaves, water and milk. Boil. Add sugar to taste. Scandinavians are also fond of cardamom in their sweets, particularly sweet breads and cookies. Try replacing 1/2 or all of the cinnamon in your cookie or coffee cake recipe with cardamom. In the Middle East, the pods are ground along with coffee beans and mixed with boiling water to produce the wonderfully silty brew usually called Turkish coffee. You may try something similar by adding a few pods** to your coffee grinder for your own morning ritual. I did this today in my moka pot, with wonderful results. Cardamom also figures prominently in savory dishes like the Indian palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese curry) and meat dishes (think lamb) in Middle Eastern cuisine.

Cardamom powder is made by grinding the small black seeds inside the green pods. Unfortunately, once ground it loses its flavor quickly, so purchase in small quantities or grind your own. It's a tedious process, liberating the seeds from the pods, but you will be rewarded.

*Which no doubt deserves its own post.
**It's not necessary to separate the seeds from the pods when flavoring tea or coffee.


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