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Cardamom, Guatemala's gift to the Arab world
The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / September 1995

By Larry Luxner

COBAN, Guatemala -- 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 200,000 or so Guatemalans who live directly or indirectly off the spice industry. "In this province cardamom is even more important than coffee."

Nationwide, cardamom ranks as Guatemala's fifth-largest export, right behind coffee, sugar, apparel and bananas. In 1994, the country exported $89 million worth of the spice -- up 120% from the year before -- with about three-fifths of that total ending up in Saudi Arabia. Another 10% went to the United Arab Emirates, and much smaller amounts were exported to Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Egypt.

"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 10 companies that export cardamom to the Middle East.

Adds Mayen F. Mérida, financial director of rival export firm Agronómicas de Guatemala SA: "Arabs mix cardamom with coffee, and the percentage of cardamom depends on the climate. In summer, they use a mixture of up to 80% cardamom and 20% coffee."

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 varity, 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 28 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.

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 ($3) a day sorting cardamom seeds into six different grades.

Around Cobán, there are around 10,000 cardamom producers, but most of the production comes from the 500 largest plantations.

As any veteran cardamomero will point out, cardamom plants can't be cultivated on a mass scale, but must be found in the wild state and carefully tended. This is why cardamom -- at $6 a kilo -- ranks as the world's third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla.

Yet the industry isn't without problems. Last September, the Arab League reacted angrily after Guatemalan President Ramiro de León Carpio -- a strong supporter of Israel -- announced he would move his country's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Arabs, who refuse to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, threatened to take revenge on Guatemala by boycotting its cardamom -- a move that would decimate the industry.

Eduardo González, Guatemala's economics minister, later tried to soften the decision by saying Guatemala could market its cardamom through brokers in Third World countries. Israel's foreign ministry has also said it would consider importing cardamom from Guatemala in order to lessen the impact of a possible Arab boycott.

Yet since the original announcement, Guatemala has quietly backed off from its decision, and its embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Ricardo Viteri, a spokesman at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, says the whole issue is "at a standstill right now" and that no final decision has been made.

"The threat of a boycott by the Arab world definitely made our government think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem," said Ricardo Viteri, a spokesman at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington. "I would tend to think it's politically wise to do it at a later date, when the peace process is in place and Israel is recognized by all the Arabs."

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