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Volume 48, Number 2March/April 1997

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The Cardamom Connection

Written by Larry Luxner
Photographed by Piet Van Lier

If it weren't for the tastes of coffee drinkers half a world away in Saudi Arabia, the Guatemalan town of Cobán might well go out of business.

Capital of Guatemala's mountainous Alta Verapáz province, Cobán is the source of much of the Arab world's cardamom, a sweet, camphorous and highly aromatic spice widely used as an additive in coffee, especially in the Arabian Gulf countries. In fact, cardamom coffee—al-qahwah al-'arabiyyah or qahwat al-hail in Arabic—is a nearly universal symbol of hospitality on the Arabian Peninsula.

In Cobán, none of the town's 125,000 residents speak Arabic, nor do any put cardamom in their own coffee. Yet the spice's Arab connections are well-known to all.

"Cardamom is the heart of our economy, and Guatemala is the biggest exporter in the world," says Otto Chavarría, a leading cardamomero and one of an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans who live, directly or indirectly, on the cardamom industry. "In this province, cardamom is even more important than coffee."

Interestingly, cardamom isn't indigenous to Guatemala, but to southern India and Sri Lanka. It is still produced in both countries, and India remains a major exporter.

Long before cardamom's 20th-century arrival in Guatemala—indeed, some 2000 years before Europeans set foot in the New World—it was among the spices carried from India to the Middle East by Arabian mariners and caravan traders. Like many spices, it was used as a medicine well before it found culinary uses. The Ebers Papyrus, a pharmacological document dating from about 1550 BC, provides evidence that Egyptians were already using cardamom, as well as other spices, in medicines; they also used it in cosmetic ointments, perfumes and aromatic oils, for fumigation and for embalming.

In India, cardamom was sometimes prescribed, along with cinnamon, ginger and turmeric, to remove fat and cure jaundice and urinary infections. The Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, based on the earliest Brahmanic texts, recommended that spices such as cardamom and cloves be wrapped in betel-nut leaves and chewed after meals to increase the flow of saliva, help digestion and eliminate bad breath, and millions of Indians do precisely that today.

Cardamom first appeared in Europe after the scientists attached to the staff of Alexander the Great sent it back from India in the fourth century BC. Alexander had plants and other specimens sent to his tutor, Aristotle, and it was Aristotle's successor, Theophrastes, "the father of botany," who first mentioned cardamom in the West. It was later used in Rome to make perfume. When Roman trade collapsed after the empire's fall, cardamom, too, disappeared from Europe. It reappeared only in the early Middle Ages when the Crusaders returned from the Middle East, bringing with them—among many other comforts—spices used for medicinal and culinary purposes. In Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, cardamom is still commonly used in breads, cakes and pastries, though it has not been as warmly accepted elsewhere in Europe.

In Saudi Arabia, however, cardamom enjoys almost universal popularity, and a well-prepared pot of Arab coffee—with praise for the generous quantities of carda-mon in it—is a staple subject of traditional colloquial poetry in Arabia. During the period between Ramadan and the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah, consumption increases as between one and two million Muslims enter the country as pilgrims, swelling the population during a three-month period. Throughout the kingdom, green coffee beans are lightly roasted, crushed with a mortar and pestle, or ground in an electric coffee mill, and boiled briefly with ground cardamom seeds. If you order ready-ground cardamom coffee in a speciality store in Arabia, the clerk will add five or 10 grams of ground spice to 250 grams of coffee, but for special occasions, or to honor a guest with a particular display of generosity and good manners, quite large quantities of cardamom may be used. The spice gives the brew a greenish tint and a heady fragrance, and in some variations, it is the cardamom, and not the coffee, that is the dominant flavor.

The cardamom cultivated in Guatemala is  Elettaria cardamomum, a native of India's Malabar coast. Growing from large rhizomes resembling ginger, the plant puts out clusters of tall, graceful stems topped with rough, palm-like leaves. From the base of the cluster grow soft, horizontal, crooked panicles up to a meter (3') long that bear white flowers and, eventually, cardamom pods. The plant thrives in the moisture of a tropical climate.

Today, cardamom ranks as Guatemala's fourth-largest agricultural export, right behind coffee, sugar and bananas. In 1995, the country shipped cardamom worth some $40 million—and roughly 60 percent of it went to Saudi Arabia, with another 10 percent to the United Arab Emirates. Only a small fraction was sent to non-Arab countries. Local exporters hope that the next crop will be even larger, perhaps enough to increase revenue by as much as 50 percent.

"Saudi Arabia consumes the bulk of the cardamom in the world," explains Milad Saad, who emigrated from Lebanon to Guatemala two decades ago. He is the owner of Imexa SA, one of 15 companies that export the spice to the Middle East. "And demand is especially high one month before Ramadan," he adds. This is because, during the holy month, making cardamom coffee is a daily task in every family, in preparation for the breaking of the fast.

Manfred Topke, a leading Guatemalan coffee exporter who also grows cardamom, says that 70 percent of the Central American nation's cardamom crop is grown by small producers: farmers with less than four hectares (10 acres) of land.

"Cardamom in Guatemala first became a big crop on the volcanic slopes of the Pacific coast, but then a virus wiped out those plantations," Topke says. Most production, he adds, then moved north from the coast to Alta Verapáz, the humid, mountainous region where higher altitude, it turned out, helped increase yields.

"The people who brought the seed here, mainly Germans, found that the climate in Guatemala, especially in Alta Verapáz, was similar to that of India," says Chavarría, who has been in the business for nearly 30 years.

In Guatemala, cardamom plants take about three years to bear fruit and produce for four to six years before yields decline. The pods, which grow spaced at intervals along the panicle, contain brown or black seeds so tiny that it takes four pods to yield a quarter-teaspoon of them. That's why cardamom ranks as one of the worlds' most expensive spices, along with saffron and vanilla.

Picking the pods is hard work. The panicles lie on the ground, so workers must squat while picking the pods and gathering them into bags, and the pods do not all ripen at once, so enough skill is required to judge which pods to pick and which to leave on the plant. Sorting the picked pods is usually done by women in large warehouses. Chavarría himself employs some 300 women and girls who earn an average of 20 quetzales ($3.40) a day sorting cardamom into six grades by color and size. (Saudi wholesale buyers judge the product by aroma first, then color and size.)

"Cardamom pods are like Christmas trees," says Dr. Luis Pedro Torrebiarte, president of the Gremial de Exportadores de Cardamomo, the Cardamom Exporters' Association. "The greener and bigger they are, the more they're worth."

Torrebiarte, 49, has been in charge of his family's cardamom business, Comercial Agricola Magdalena SA, since 1985. He's also a psychiatrist with a degree from Syracuse University. In the mornings, Torrebiarte surrounds himself with cardamom samples and spreadsheets in his Guatemala City office; afternoons, he sees patients at a nearby clinic.

"Right now, we're at a very even balance between production and consumption," he observes, noting that Guatemala surpassed India in overall production volume about 10 years ago. Other cardamom-exporting countries include Tanzania and Sri Lanka, but neither markets more than 40 percent of Guatemala's totals. Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have each tried to cultivate the spice commercially, but inhospitable growing conditions have kept them from success.

But other countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and Honduras, Guatemala's neighbor to the south, have successfully entered the global market in recent years. Thus, a Guatemalan government report points out, global supply has grown faster than demand, causing export prices to drop 8.3 percent between 1994 and 1995.

For the foreseeable future, Guatemala seems likely to remain the world's foremost exporter of cardamom. An optimist, Torrebiarte has requested that the Guatemalan government open its first trade office in the Middle East in order to facilitate sales not only of cardamom, but also of other Guatemalan products such as fine coffee, apparel and manufactured goods.

Momentum for his and other economic-growth initiatives appears to have received a boost from the signing, last December, of a peace accord between the Guatemalan military, under President Alvaro Arzú, and the country's largest rebel groups. The agreement formally ended Latin America's oldest and deadliest armed conflict, the 36-year-old Guatemalan civil war, which cost the nation an estimated 140,000 lives.

The economic cost, too, Torrebiarte points out, has been enormous. "Many man-hours have been wasted," he says. "We hope that with the signing of this treaty, we can become more productive." His Arab customers assure him that the market is waiting.

Larry Luxner is editor-in-chief ofSouth America Report, and a regular contributor to Aramco World.

Cleveland-based free-lance photojournalist Piet van Lier is a member of Impact Visuals of New York.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the March/April 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1997 images.