Tsao ko is the dried fruit pod of the Lanxangia tsaoko plant.
Tsaoko — 草果 in Chinese — is a smoky spice with notes of camphor that’s often incorporated into the five-spice blends of regional Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines.
It’s often confused with the black cardamom grown in India and Nepal. Tsaoko and black cardamom are distinct spices. They’re similar in taste and, to a lesser extent, complexion. The flavor of tsaoko, however, isn’t quite as strong as black cardamom (aka bari elaichi).
If you’re looking to make some authentic Vietnamese pho or take your Sichuan-style hot pot up a notch, the smoky, aromatic tsaoko is just the right spice for you.
What is Tsaoko?
Tsaoko cardamom pods are the dried fruit of the Lanxangia tsaoko plant. (Its former botanical name is Amomum tsao-ko.)
This plant grows in the shady, high-altitude regions of China’s south-central, agriculturally-rich provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, and the northern areas of neighboring Laos and Vietnam.
Like the Nepali black cardamom, tsaoko is naturally red. The seed-carrying fruit pods grow in bundles from the base of this shade-loving rhizome, which takes three years to bear fruit. The pod bundles are sliced off, sorted, and washed. And then they’re dried over a flame, which gives these fruit a smoky flavor and darker hue.
Tsaoko, like black cardamom, is not a substitute for green cardamom — which is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear or read the word “cardamom.”
Black cardamom and tsaoko have distinct flavor profiles when compared to green cardamom. They work best for meat and rice dishes, and soups and stews. Using black cardamom or tsaoko in a sweet dish or tea recipe that calls for green cardamom is likely to lead to disappointment.
Please note that transliterations of the spice’s Chinese name (草果) vary. And so too do its English-language names. Tsaoko is also transliterated as “cao guo” or “tsao ko.” In English, it’s often referred to as “Chinese cardamom,” “Chinese black cardamom,” or “red cardamom.“
How to Cook with Tsaoko
In Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, tsaoko is sometimes incorporated in variants of the five-spice blend. (The “five” in five-spice refers to distinct flavor profiles, not specific spices.)
Tsaoko works best with hearty, meaty dishes that require time to cook. It’s a key ingredient in Vietnamese pho. It’s toasted along with the other spices that flavor the pho broth, including star anise, cinnamon, and cloves.
Tsaoko is also used in the Sichuan-style red braise and regional varieties of Chinese dishes like the hot pot. It’s toasted with other spices in the preparation process. If you’re among the growing numbers of chili crisp aficionados, consider adding it to your spice list to make a Sichuan-style chili oil.
Tsaoko: A Traditional Medicine
Like the black cardamom grown in India and Nepal, tsaoko has been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a therapeutic for a range of digestive issues, including bloating and stomach pain.
A study in the Foods journal identifies antibacterial properties in tsaoko essential oil, though more research is necessary to demonstrate its appropriateness as medicine or a food preservative. It’s best to consult a medical health professional before using tsaoko to treat ailments or illnesses.
Where to Buy Tsaoko
Tsaoko is available at Chinese and pan-Asian grocery stores and supermarkets, as well as select international food markets. Before you go shopping, please keep in mind the multiple transliteration styles of the Chinese name (as listed above).
If you’re looking to buy some online, Amazon has numerous offerings of tsaoko. Be aware that some brands conflate Nepali or Indian black cardamom with Chinese tsaoko. The Natural Plus Green brand sells genuine tsaoko and is clear about its sourcing, identifying its product as originating in China.