We have held off answering this question for at least five years (no, not your question specifically, but we get the same question at least every other month, so we’ve been ignoring all of you.)
OK, we haven’t really been ignoring you. We’ve been looking for an answer that will satisfy you. We have asked representatives of every spice company at every food trade show we’ve been to on various continents over the years. And the answer every time, after all this time, is that there is no good substitute for cardamom.
Cardamom is called the queen of spices in India (where black pepper is the king). Cardamom’s boosters say it goes with virtually every food and drink. Its uses in Indian food are legion and well-known, but it is also important in pastries in every Scandinavian country and Germany, as well as Swedish meatballs, and glögg, the spiced wine popular in Sweden at Christmas. In Arab countries, it is used to flavor coffee made for special guests. It is used in some salamis, sausages, frankfurters, and pickles, as well as soft drinks, liqueurs, and confections in the United States.
Alice Arndt says in Seasoning Savvy, “It appears in Ethopian berbere, Parsi dhansak masala, Moroccan ras el hanout, and Yemeni zhug [all spice mixtures], as well as the various curry pastes that are popular from India across Asia to Japan. Cardamom also blends into garam masala and mulling spices.”
The plant on which the pods grow, elettaria cardamomum, is related to ginger, but cardamom is the only species in its genus. Depending on fluctuations in the commodities markets, it is generally the third most expensive spice, after saffron and vanilla.
Now, given that singularity and level of versatility, how could you expect to find a single spice to fill all its roles? Depending on what you are cooking you might be able to find something to substitute for cardamom – ginger, perhaps – but really, you will be getting an entirely different dish than if you used real cardamom as specified in your recipe.
Buy a little cardamom (either pods from which you will extract the seeds and crush before use, or ground. Find one or more recipes that use it, or, as Ms. Arndt suggests, add a half-teaspoon to gingerbread or spice cakes or chocolate cakes! “It exalts fruits: add a little to apple or peach pie, fruit salads, and jams. And make it the principal flavoring in custard or ice cream.”
Once you get a little practice with cardamom, it won’t be a foreign substance for which you (and zillions* of our other readers) are always seeking a substitute.
*OK, we don’t really have zillions of readers (or even a single zillion readers), but we wish we did. Tell your friends….