Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Trendia: Black Cardamom

Summer’s coming, the season in which I most like to fool around with perfume-making. I’ve made a couple of successful tinctures, one from dried oakmoss, one from tonka beans. I’ve used commercially produced green cardamom absolute, but haven’t seen the black variety. However, the international market where I shop features, in its enormous spice section, black cardamom pods as well as green ones. 

Black cardamom is in the same botanical family (Zingiberaceae, or ginger) as green. The kind I’m using, Amomum subulatum, usually comes from Nepal. The pods are smoked over slow fires as a means of drying them. The result is an intense, but not too pungent, smoky aroma with a hint of wood.

The pods are full of gray, slightly fuzzy seeds which, when chewed (we here at Olfactarama believe in primary research) are smoky and a little bitter. Their smoky flavor merely hints at cardamom, and is not nearly as pungent, citric or long-lasting as the green’s. 

This cardamom variety is used a lot in northern India, often in the ubiquitous garam masala spice mixture. I can see why it’s used to flavor cold-weather soups and stews. The smoky taste lends rusticity, but does not overwhelm a dish, and so can be used in rice dishes, dal and Chai spiced tea. Green cardamom is saved for more refined foods. This reminds me of  the difference between the earthy Cajun cooking of South Louisiana in the U.S., vs. the much more French-influenced Creole cuisine of New Orleans.

Green cardamom has been popular in perfumery for a couple of decades, as in Declaration (Cartier), and  Eau Parfumée Extrême (Bulgari), both from Jean-Claude Ellena. It’s a lot harder to find scents that feature the black variety, but Paco Rabanne’s Black XS lists it in some places, as does BBW’s “Noir” body spray for men, and Jo Malone’s Dark Amber and
Ginger Lily. I’m going to see if it makes a good “smoke” note. I’ve used cade oil, but it smells too much like barbecue to me, and a porky one at that. 

(It should be noted that Grains of Paradise, a slightly different botanical sometimes called “Greater Cardamom” is not the same thing, although it too emits a spicy note. I’ve seen it used in botanical perfume. There is also a Chinese variety of black cardamom, which has much larger pods, generally isn’t smoked, and is used in the Sichuan province as a culinary spice.)

I was a little surprised to see black cardamom as an ingredient in a mass-market body spray like BBW’s Noir, but it does appear to be a little less expensive than the green variety. My market charges $17.39/pound for it, which, because the pods are very light, would be a whole lot of it. I’m going to tincture a little over an ounce and a half of the pods in a cup or so of perfumers alcohol, for a couple of months, and will replace the pods once during that time. If I get a smoky scent, laced with cardamom’s cineol and terpinenes, I will be happy!

the photo comes from

References:  Gernot Ketzer's Spice Pages and "The New Perfume Handbook" by Nigel Groom


Vanessa said...

Thanks for teaching me the botanical? name for ginger. I must see if I can work Zingiberaceae into a conversation soon...

And I am a big fan of Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, though had not even clocked that it featured a rare colour of cardamom. I will view my bottle in a new light from now on - or dark, rather, as it is completely opaque!

Vanessa said...

Okay, just checked and it is not completely opaque, like a Piguet bottle, say. But on the dark side, for sure!

Olfacta said...

Hi V -- Yeah, I'm kind of surprised that we don't see this ingredient more often in perfumery (although there may be a good reason for that -- the tincture, upon first shake, resembles muddy water!) But we'll see in time.

Dionne said...

I love that the name for the ginger family starts with "zing." It seems so apropos.

Lately I've considered that it's time to start smelling more tinctures and EO's; I'd like to train my nose more is the basic building blocks of perfumery, so this post is especially fascinating.

Blacknall Allen said...

So the dark/rustic description got me off my keyster and into the refrigerator to check Dark Amber and Ginger Lily again. It is a seriously dark fragrance alright, and there is something in there which is slightly like smoke house bacon, much more hickory than porker, but discernible. This is a good thing since I do love the smell of smoked anything. Hungry making post.

Olfacta said...

Hi Dionne -- Making stuff gives you a different perspective on perfumery, definitely! (And the botanicals companies sell samples, so you don't have to go broke to do it.)

Olfacta said...

Hi Blacknall -- I haven't tried the Jo Malone in a really long time. What you're describing sounds like black cardamom, though. Not sure what kind of fuel is used for the smoking process. Hmmm...Nepal.Could be lots of possibilities there.