White cardamom may be an unfamiliar spice in most Western kitchens, but it is a popular ingredient in Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking.
It has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for many years, and given the considerable overlap between TCM and Chinese cooking, it’s not surprising that it has found its way to our family’s spice cabinet.
What Is White Cardamom?
White cardamom (bái dòu kòu, 白寇) is a fragrant spice made from the dried seed pod of the plant botanically known as Amomum kravanh or Amomum compactum.
Because it is mostly cultivated in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, the spice may also be called Thai, Siam, Java, or Cambodian cardamom as well as “Chinese round cardamom” and “round cardamom fruit.”
White cardamom pods are cream-colored. However, don’t confuse them with green cardamom pods that have been bleached white for aesthetic reasons. The bleaching process actually renders the pods less fragrant and flavorful. This type of “white cardamom” is mostly for recipes that benefit from being uniformly white, such as breads and cakes.
Milder in flavor and plumper in shape than the green or black types, the white cardamom fruit resembles a chickpea with its round, pale husk. The reddish-brown seeds inside have a citrus-y, floral aroma, and they impart a warm flavor with notes of lemon and mint.
How TO USE White Cardamom
White cardamom pods are perhaps at their best when used whole in slow-cooked soups, curries, and braised meat dishes. The pods are relatively mild in flavor, so they work well when layered with other spices.
Though there are quite a few applications in Chinese traditional medicine (TCM), this spice isn’t used super frequently in Chinese cooking. You’ll see it mostly in spice mixes for braises, broths, soups, oils, and sauces.
It’s perhaps better known for its role in Southeast Asian cuisine. For instance, it’s an essential ingredient in classic Thai recipes like Massaman curry.
In this deeply satisfying dish, the pods harmonize perfectly with many of our favorite Chinese spices and aromatics.
We use whole pods most often, but you can lightly toast and grind them for a more intense aroma.
Buying & Storing
Because white cardamom isn’t commonly used outside of authentic Southeast Asian cuisine, you won’t find it at typical grocery stores in the West.
Asian markets and grocers specializing in Southeast Asian or Indian products may carry it. Look for the telltale chickpea-like pods in plastic packaging with labels like “bái dòu kòu” or “round cardamom fruit.”
It is also available online, though you may have to look specifically at Asian eCommerce grocers.
When stored in a tightly-sealed container away from light and moisture, it will keep for around three years. We keep ours in a clean recycled spaghetti sauce jar in our pantry.
Grinding the seeds releases their aroma-producing oils and causes them to lose potency more quickly. Powdered cardamom only has a shelf life of about one year.
Substitutions for White Cardamom
Green cardamom is more pungent. A smaller amount than the recipe calls for may be able to imitate the subtle minty-citrus taste you’re looking for.
That said, if part of a larger collection of spices, you can simply omit it from the recipe.