Saudi Aramco World / March-April 1997
By Larry Luxner
If it weren't for the demanding tastes of coffee drinkers half a world away in Saudi Arabia, the Guatemalan town of Cobán might just as well go out of business.
Capital of Guatemala's mountainous Alta Verapaz province, Cobán is the source of much of the Arab world's cardamom -- a sweet, pungent and highly aromatic spice widely used in Indian cuisine. In fact, cardamom coffee, known in Arabic as kahwe hal, is considered a symbol of hospitality throughout the Middle East.
In Cobán, famous for its 16th-century Catholic church and nearby Mayan ruins, virtually nobody speaks Arabic, and none of the town's 125,000 residents put cardamom in their coffee. Yet the spice's Arab connections are well-known to all who live here.
"Cardamom is at 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 off the spice industry. "In this province, cardamom is even more important than coffee."
Today, cardamom ranks as Guatemala's fourth-largest agricultural export -- right behind coffee, sugar and bananas. In 1995, the country exported 13,900 metric tons of the spice worth US$40.7 million, with about three-fifths of that volume ending up in Saudi Arabia. Another 10% goes to the United Arab Emirates; smaller amounts are exported to Syria, Kuwait, Singapore, the United States and Western Europe. The 1996-97 crop is projected at 15,000 tons worth US$60 million.
"Saudi Arabia consumes 80% of the cardamom in the world. Consumption is especially high one month before Ramadan," said Lebanese cardamom merchant Milad Saad, who emigrated to Guatemala 20 years ago and is today the owner of Imexa S.A., one of 15 companies that export cardamom to the Middle East.
Manfred Topke, a leading Guatemalan coffee exporter who also grows the sweet-smelling spice, says 70% of the Central American nation's cardamom crop is cultivated by small producers with fewer than 10 acres of land.
"Cardamom in Guatemala became a big crop in the volcanic slopes of the Pacific coast, but then the mozaic virus came in and wiped out those plantations," he explained. "Most cardamom production has now moved to Alta Verapaz -- close to the Honduran border -- and away from the south coast." The new farms are located in mountainous areas with better natural humidity and at altitudes above 3,000 feet, which increases crop yields.
Interestingly, cardamom isn't indigenous to Guatemala at all, but to southern India and Sri Lanka, where it is still produced, though mainly for domestic use.
Long before cardamom came to Guatemala -- indeed, some 2,000 years before Columbus set foot in the New World -- Arabian caravans were carrying exotic spices to ancient Nineveh and Babylon, Carthage and Alexandria, making their owners wealthy beyond belief. For many centuries, Arab traders kept their sources of supply secret, since spices were treasured as much as gold, gemstones and jewelry.
Cardamom was a special favorite in countries that traded in spices, since it had not only culinary but medicinal uses. By 1500 BC, Egyptians were using cardamom and other spices in medicine, cosmetic ointments, perfumes, aromatic oils, cooking, fumigation and embalming.
Later, in ancient India, it was prescribed, along with cinnamon, ginger and turmeric, to remove fat and cure urinary infections, piles and jaundice. The Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, based on the earliest Brahmanic texts, recommended that spices such as cloves and cardamom be wrapped in betel-nut leaves and chewed after meals to increase the flow of saliva, help digestion and eliminate bad breath.
Cardamom first appeared in the West when soldiers of Alexander the Great brought it back from India. It was also used in ancient Rome to make perfume, but when Roman trade routes collapsed, cardamom disappeared from Europe, to reappear only in medieval times when the Crusaders returned from Jersualem. Except for Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, where cardamom is sometimes used in breads and pastries, the spice never found much of a following in modern Europe.
In Saudi Arabia, however, cardamom enjoys widespread popularity, particularly during the hajj, or pilgrimmage to Mecca. A poor Saudi, the saying goes, would rather forego his rice than give up his cardamom.
Besides cooling the body and settling the stomach, cardamom coffee is sometimes also marketed as a sexual stimulant, especially among the older generation. No wonder Saudis prepare and offer their guests cardamom coffee as a ceremonial ritual. Green coffee beans are roasted, crushed with a brass mortar and pestle, and boiled for a few minutes along with cardamom seeds, a touch of saffron, ground cloves and some sugar. After straining, the mixture is ready to be drunk.
The huge quantities of cardamom used -- about two teaspoons of seeds for each cup -- give the brew a powerful, spicy flavor and heady fragrance. Guests are served the coffee according to their rank or status. Accepting up to three cups of it and making audible slurping noises are considered signs of appreciation.
In fact, a recent guidebook on Saudi etiquette advises visitors: "Hospitality requires that coffee be served to a guest on all occasions. When it is offered, it must be accepted. The third cup is an extreme limit. The fourth cup can be refused by shaking the empty cup from side to side or turning it upside-down."
Of the two plants that produce cardamom seeds -- Eletteria cardamomum and Amomum cardamomum -- Guatemala cultivates the first, which is the finer variety, and is native to the Malabar coast of India. A tall reedlike plant with long, coarse leaves and white spiky flowers, it grows in moist, tropical climates and propagates itself, like ginger, by means of large rhizomes.
"The people who brought the seed here, mainly Germans, found that the climate in Guatemala, especially in Alta Verapaz, was similar to that of India," said Chavarría, who's been in the cardamom business for nearly 30 years.
Cardamom plants take about three years to bear fruit and produce for four to six years before yields decline. Only cardamom seeds, however, are valuable. Found in single pods widely spaced along the stalk, the seeds are brown or black, and so tiny that it takes four pods to yield one-quarter teaspoon of seeds. That's why cardamom -- at US$3.00 per kilogram -- still ranks as one of the world's most expensive spices, along with saffron, vanilla and capsicum.
Picking the pods is a difficult job, since unlike coffee beans, cardamom pods grow near the base of the plant and workers must squat for hours at a time gathering them into bags. Sorting is usually done by women working in large warehouses. Otto Chavarría alone employs some 300 women and young girls who earn an average 20 quetzales (US$3.40) a day sorting cardamom seeds into six different grades.
"Cardamom seeds are like Christmas trees," says Dr. Luis Pedro Torrebiarte, president of the Gremial de Exportadores de Cardamomo (Cardamom Exporters Association). "The greener and bigger the seeds, the more they're worth."
Torrebiarte, 49, has been in charge of his family's cardamom business, Comercial Agricola Magdalena S.A., since 1985. He's also a psychiatrist with a degree from Syracuse University. In the morning, Torrebiarte surrounds himself with cardamom samples and spreadsheets in his Guatemala City office; afternoons, he sees patients at a nearby clinic. It's difficult to say which excites him more -- spices or psychiatry.
"Right now, we're at a very even balance between production and consumption," observed the executive, noting that Guatemala surpassed India in production about 10 years ago. Other cardamom-producing countries include Tanzania (5,000 tons a year) and Sri Lanka (4,000 tons). Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have also tried to cultivate cardamom on a commercial scale, though without success, due to poor growing conditions in those nations.
In 1995, Guatemala sold 306,500 quintales (hundredweights) of cardamom, a 5.2% jump over 1994 figures. Nevertheless, the average export price dropped to $132.79 per quintal, an 8.3% drop from the year before.
"The reduction in average prices is a reflection of bigger crops in Guatemala and India, as well the entry of other countries in the global cardamom market, such as Papua New Guinea, Honduras and Costa Rica," says a government commodities report, adding that Honduras is emerging as one of Guatemala's strongest rivals in the export trade.
Even so, Guatemala -- with its cheaper prices and aggressive market-ing -- is clearly the world's No. 1 cardamom exporter. According to some reports, it's even begun penetrating India's huge domestic market (via Nepalese smugglers) despite Indian laws that strictly forbid the importation of cardamom.
In the early 1990s, Guatemala's cardamomeros found themselves in the midst of an international controversy, when Guatemala decided to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia protested, threatening to cut off all cardamom purchases if the planned embassy transfer went through. In the end, says Torrebiarte, "the government decided not the change the embassy, and it saved us a lot of trouble."
With that debate out of the way -- at least for now -- Guatemala's cardamom growers aren't worried about losing their most important market. In fact, Torrebiarte is asking the Guatemalan government to open a trade office in the Middle East, to facilitate sales not only of cardamom but also of other Guatemalan products such as gourmet coffee, apparel and manufactured goods.
At the same time, everyone seems encouraged by the December 1996 signing of a peace accord between President Alvaro Arzú and Guatemala's biggest guerrilla groups. That ended a 36-year civil war -- Latin America's oldest armed conflict -- which killed an estimated 140,000 Guatemalans and kept the country's productive sectors from growing.
"Many man-hours have been wasted in patrolling and civil defense that could have been better spent in more productive activities," said Torrebiarte. "We hope that with the signing of this treaty, we will no longer have to pay illegal war taxes or live in fear."
To which any Arab cardamom lover can only respond: "Inshallah!"