Chinese black cardamom or cǎoguǒ (草果), also known as Amomum tsaoko, is a lesser known spice used in Chinese cooking. It provides fragrant aroma to flavor master sauces in many Chinese braised dishes as well as infused oils.
If you’re like us and love to cook Indian food, you’re probably familiar with green cardamom. Although they share a name, black and green cardamom are more like distant cousins than siblings, with different flavors and applications.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about cooking with black cardamom in this article.
What Is Black Cardamom?
Black cardamom is an intensely aromatic spice with a smoky, menthol-like flavor. Technically, there are two types from two different plants in the ginger family, Amomum subulatum and Amomum tsao-ko. Chinese black cardamom or tsaoko, has larger seed pods and less of a kick.
Amomum subulatum, also known as Nepal cardamom or Bengal cardamom, is the smaller and more pungent of the two types, and it’s commonly used in Indian and Pakistani cooking.
This spice is native to the Eastern Himalayas and is cultivated at high altitudes in a region spanning from Eastern Nepal to Yunnan Province in China.
Before harvesting, the pods look a bit like large Red Globe grapes clustered at the base of the plant. They are dried over open flames, giving the outer husk a wrinkled leathery texture and the dark brown seeds inside a unique flavor that is smoky, peppery, and warm.
How Is Black Cardamom Used?
Unlike its distant relative green cardamom, black cardamom is not well-suited for sweets and desserts.
Instead, black cardamom makes a great addition to savory dishes, especially slow-simmered soups, braised meat recipes, and even stir-fries.
In our kitchen, we generally use it whole. It adds an extra dimension of flavor to the broth of soups like Vietnamese Pho and Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup.
It is also in our recipes for Chinese Braised Beef Shank and Braised Beef Noodle Soup.
For braises and broths, we generally lightly toast the whole pods in a dry pan for a few minutes along with other spices, tie them into a packet with cheesecloth, and then add them to the pot.
Ground black cardamom, produced by removing the coarse outer rind and grinding the seeds inside, is found in the Indian spice blend garam masala. However, it is more common to use whole pods as an aromatic in Chinese cooking.
When using black cardamom, the “less is more” approach definitely applies. This strong spice can quickly overpower other flavors in a dish, so we usually add just one or two whole pods to a recipe and remove them before serving.
Buying & Storing Black Cardamom
Black cardamom isn’t really a mainstream spice in the West, so it can be tough to locate.
You’re most likely to find whole pods at Chinese and Indian grocery stores. It’s typically sold in plastic packages labeled “Amomum tsao-ko” or “Cǎo Guǒ.”
If you don’t live close to an international supermarket, you can purchase it online. The whole pods will last for about three years when stored in a tightly-sealed container away from light and moisture.
Ground tsaoko powder will start to lose much of its aroma and flavor within a year. Buying whole pods is best.
Black cardamom’s flavor profile is difficult to replicate. If it’s being used along with a collection of other spices, you can simply omit it.