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Queen of Spices - Alainchi

Indra Bahadur Thapa with his harvest. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim are the most visited hill stations of the east Himalayan region of India. In addition to its natural beauty, the region is famous for high-quality teas, flavoured large cardamom, sweet mandarin, beautiful flowers and different varieties of orchids. The strategic location of the region as well as local climatic conditions have fostered the proliferation of rich agricultural and horticultural biodiversity especially in terms of genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.

There are two types of cardamom- small green cardamom and large black cardamom. The geographical conditions of the sub-Himalayan region favour the growth of, the large cardamom, locally known as Alainchi. In the recent years, the high demand of cardamom in the market has transformed it into a major cash crop and the eastern Himalayan boasts as of the largest exporter of the spice. Having its origin in India, cardamom is also known as the ‘queen of spice’, comes with many health benefits. The pleasant aroma and taste lend it this title.

Cardamom is an evergreen, perennial, herbaceous spice that is mostly cultivated in marginal and waste sloppy lands. The queen of spice is believed to be one of the oldest spice- with its use in Ayurveda in 6th century BC as mentioned by Sushruta. The Greeks and Romans referred to it as Amonun during 4th Century BC and was recorded by Theophrastus, the Greek Philosopher.

The indication of the time of harvest is when the seeds of the topmost capsules turn brown. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

Cardamom bush grows in a warm humid place where the soil is rich and there is plenty of water. After 2-3 years, the bush produces flowers. In the third year, the first crop of capsules is harvested. Cardamom trees flower in April/May and continue until July/August in India.

To produce high-quality cardamom capsules, fruits are harvested after they are fully ripe and mature. A ripe capsule contains black seed while an immature capsule contains white seeds.

The harvesting and processing of cardamom seed in the hills are done traditionally with less scientific influence. A special knife is used to remove the mature capsules. These are then segregated and manually cleaned before curing, an important step in cardamom processing. The moisture content is reduced to a level that is safe for storage while increasing the shelf life. Extreme temperatures may result in the loss of essential oil content of large cardamom. Since time immemorial, local farmers have been making use of traditional kiln for curing large cardamom capsules, although fuel efficiency of this system is very poor.

Bhattis or kilns are made using locally available resources. It consists of a traditional firewood-based curing house consisting of a furnace for burning wood. IT is a direct heating system that uses heated air to dry the capsules, placed above the kiln on a rack. The capsules are cured overnight, turning the colour into black or dark brown.

Sharpening of special knives used to harvest Cardamom spikes. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

Medicinal and Ayurvedic value

With the indigenous system of medicine gaining currency in recent years, Ayurveda today is well known throughout the globe. Cardamom is an important component in preparing Ayurvedic medicines. It contains 2-3% essential oil, possesses , stomachic, diuretic and cardiac stimulant properties. Large cardamom seeds are considered as an antidote to either snake venom or scorpion venom. It is also reported that large cardamom seeds are used as preventive as well as curative measures for throat troubles, congestion of lungs, inflammation of eyelids, digestive disorders and in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. Due to the broad health benefits of cardamom, it is one of the most expensive spices in the world.

Culinary use

Cardamom has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance due to which it is extensively used for flavouring vegetables and many food preparations in India. The leaves of the plant are cooked and consumed as greens, the roots are boiled and eaten like potatoes, flowers are used as a garnishing agent in salads and other recipes and the pods are often steam-cooked and added in pulses. Black Cardamom is frequently included in several Indian sweet dishes and punches. It is also used as a flavouring agent in pickles and custard. In India, it is used in pan masala and added in betel leaf preparations. It is widely used in the preparation of Biriyani. Rice puddings, flans and porridges taste great with a pinch of black cardamom. Black Cardamom is an important ingredient in Scandinavian bakery products and Danish pastries. In Sri Lankan cuisine, the pods are generally added to spicy beef and chicken curries. When a small amount of this spice is added to coffee cakes, it produces a stimulating flavour. Black cardamom seeds are used to flavour tea.

Traditionally kiln called Bhatti. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

Black Cardamom distribution

Black cardamom seeds are mainly cultivated in Asian countries such as Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, China and Vietnam. In India, large cardamom is mainly cultivated in Sikkim and Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Large cardamom is also cultivated in parts of Uttarakhand and some other North-Eastern States.

Traditionally large cardamom is cured in a bhatti where the capsules are dried by direct heating. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

Nutritional value of large Cardamom

Large cardamom is a good source of minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Additionally, it is also an excellent source of iron and manganese. Further, these aromatic pods are rich in many vital vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-C that is essential for optimum health. Cardamom is graded by size and colour. The deeper the colour and larger the capsule, the higher the grade.

Cardamom capsules are packaged in polythene bags which are sealed to prevent moisture. the bags help to preserve the colour of the pods.

Since cardamom is grown organically, the global demand has risen.

Cardamom plantation. ©Photo : Praveen Chettri

PINKEY DUKPA - Ms. Pinkey Dukpa, B.Sc (Ag),M.Sc (Vegetable and spice crops) is a research scholar pursuing PhD in the Department of Vegetable Science, Faculty of Horticulture,Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Mohan’s, Nadia, West Bengal,India. Her field of expertise is “Assessment of growth dynamic and fruit yield of Capsicum under Organic Soilless culture.


Content Copyright ©Pinkey Dukpa / Photo copyright : Praveen Chettri . All rights reserved. For permission requests, write to CafeKalimpong, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at


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