The Hidden History of Scandinavia's Love of Cardamom

The Hidden History of Scandinavia's Love of Cardamom

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The way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.

The secrets behind your spice rack: Explore the untold stories of your favorite holiday flavors as OZY uncovers A Dash of Truth in this original series.

Every year, from the beginning of December through Christmas, Kicki Pallin drinks glogg. It’s a wine that’s “kind of sweet” and features a spice found in many festive Scandinavian foods: cardamom. “It’s like a memory flavor,” says Pallin, a writer and painter who lives in Sollentuna, Sweden.

Pallin doesn’t just use cardamom during the holidays, though. She takes it regularly with her coffee, and she adds it to her chicken dishes and vegetarian stews. Because she likes to experiment with international food, she uses it when she cooks with curry or garam masala. “For me, I just love the taste. It’s a little bit edgy in a sense.”

Cardamom is a staple flavor throughout the Arab world and South Asia, but across Eurasia, in the world of icy fjords and lutefisk, Pallin’s fondness for cardamom reflects another region’s love of the spice. At some point, cardamom made its way from the Middle East and established itself as an iconic flavor in Scandinavian cuisine. According to U.N. Comtrade data:

Sweden consumes 18 times more cardamom per capita than the median country, while Norway consumes almost 30 times more per capita.

Now, cardamom has claimed a space in Scandinavian spice cabinets as one of the flavors that defines the region’s cuisine. It’s commonly found in holiday foods and sweets like cardamom buns and krumkake, a sweet and thin waferlike cookie that’s rolled into a cone shape. It’s a spice that is “in many ways sneaked into the cuisine,” Pallin says.

The people whom Scandinavians may need to thank for their cardamom traditions could be the Moors.

The conventional history behind the arrival of cardamom in Scandinavia typically points to the Vikings, who allegedly introduced the spice to the region after trading with the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey. In various iterations, studies cite each other and say that about 1,000 years ago, the Vikings found cardamom in the bazaars of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. This connection is used to support the idea that the Vikings were trading cardamom.

Wrong, says Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist who studies Viking and medieval food. Serra’s research shows that by the 1050s, cardamom had reached only as far north as Cologne in what is now Germany. “I usually get lots of people asking about the import of spices during the Viking Age, but we don’t really have much evidence of that,” Serra tells OZY. He adds that he has seen neither archaeological evidence nor references in Viking or Icelandic literature to support the received wisdom that cardamom graced Scandinavian kitchens during that era.

Instead, the people whom Scandinavians may need to thank for their cardamom traditions could be the Moors, a Muslim population with Arab, Spanish and Berber roots that shaped elite European culture after establishing a presence on the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.

Five hundred years later, a Danish monk named Knud Juul who had been educated in France and Germany mentioned cardamom in the cookbook Libellus De Arte Coquinaria — the first time it shows up in Scandinavian chronicles. Serra notes that the cookbook, which is one of the earliest remaining from the medieval period, includes recipes almost identical to Moorish ones.

Perhaps, he speculates, one of the reasons cardamom ingrained itself into Scandinavian food, while the rest of Europe moved on, was because the region, being on the fringes of the continent, clung to medieval food longer than the rest of Europe. “It can take a bit of time to change food, to change food traditions, to change taste,” Serra says. “Even today, we are quite open to foreign food, but still you will notice that foreign food … is adapted to the food culture of where it comes to.”

Today, as refugees from the Middle East and their families become more integrated into Scandinavian communities, Middle Eastern flavors are once again making their way into northern Europe. In Malmö, Sweden, five Syrian restaurants opened in one year. Perhaps an unlikely shared culinary history can create a dinner table around which everyone can eat.

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