Cardamom is my favorite under-utilized spice. It has a beguiling flavor that’s the perfect balance of savory and sweet, with both herbal and citrus notes that elegantly accent a variety of dishes. I add it to all of my favorite Indian dishes, but it’s also amazing in side dishes and even desserts.
Although cardamom is both versatile and delicious, it remains an under-utilized spice, mainly because it is so expensive—the third most expensive spice in the world, in fact, after saffron and vanilla.
So why exactly is cardamom so expensive? There are several factors that contribute to its high price, but the main reason is the intensive harvesting method.
Cardamom plants must be harvested by hand. Each cardamom pod is picked separately when it is precisely 3/4 ripe. The pods must be ripe enough to have adequately developed but not so ripe as to fall off the plant, or split open, at which point they are no longer commercially viable.
Since the pods must be so carefully selected and the entirety of each plant will not ripen at the same time, the process of harvesting cardamom is extremely labor-intensive. It cannot be mechanized.
Cardamom is only grown in a few parts of the world. It’s native to tropical areas of India, Burma, and Sri Lanka and is also now cultivated in Tanzania, Malaysia, and Guatemala. Cardamom is a sensitive plant. It requires stable temperatures, intensive weeding and thinning, and is susceptible to pests and drought.
It is not a particularly prolific plant. An acre of cardamom plants will only produce between 50 and 150 pounds of the spice. The plants must mature for at least two years before they produce any pods, and then they only produce for around three to four years. The additional labor and cost of constant replanting only reinforces the need to charge a high price for the spice.
Worth the Investment
It’s clear from the limited production and extremely labor-intensive harvesting why cardamom is such an expensive spice. Despite its high price, it is becoming increasingly popular around the world. This demand for cardamom only further balloons the cost.
I would argue, however, that it’s well worth the investment. Although it’s one of the pricier components of any spice collection, you need very little to add that subtle elevation to your favorite dishes. The unique flavor of cardamom is such a welcome addition to a variety of dishes, I always keep a jar on hand. I recently discovered cardamom shortbread cookies, and I may never go back!