Green cardamom is one of the most widely used spices when it comes to Indian sweets. Its unique flavour is difficult to compare to anything else - fragrant and pungent, a little goes a long way which can only be a good thing as it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, alongside saffron and vanilla. Cardamom is sometimes known as the 'Queen of Spices' because alongside pepper (the 'King of Spices') it was, pre 16th century, so precious in the trading ports that some people considered it even more valuable than gold!
Originally grown in South India, cardamom is used throughout Indian cooking in both sweet and savoury dishes. When used in savoury dishes it is an undertone combined with the likes of cinnamon, chilli, clove and ginger to add depth and flavour to the spiciness of the dish. In sweets however it is a much more prominent flavour often paired with nutmeg and saffron.
Cardamom is now cultivated in Central and South America and all across Asia. Interestingly it is actually a part of the ginger family and its Latin name is Elettaria. India is famously renowned for using herbs and spices with regard to medicinal properties and cardamom is no exception. It is said to help with digestion (and therefore weight loss) and is used to treat gum and tooth infections (whilst at the same time acting as a breath freshener!). It is also said to be somewhat of an aphrodisiac and cardamom oil was often used in the past as an alluring and stimulating perfume.
My favourite use of it has to be in Indian sweet dishes though! My fondest memory being my Mum's Indian equivalent to bedtime cocoa - warm milk sweetened with a little sugar and flavoured with cardamom and crushed almonds and pistachios and when we were really lucky, a few strands of saffron! To this day Mum never fails to remind me of how I used to follow her around the kitchen until she made me 'the milk with the sweets in it!' :)