Grains of Paradise or melegueta pepper (aframomum melegueta), are the small brown to black seeds of a perennial reedlike plant in the Ginger family, or zingiberaceae. The plant is also related to cardamom.
Indigenous to the West Coast of Africa and growing in swampy terrain, the seeds look like small black peppercorns with a white interior when crushed.
Taste of Grains of Paradise
Used as a spice, the seeds have a hot and pungent flavor and the tastes of ginger, coriander, nutmeg and cardamom, but without the camphor component. There is also a citrusy quality.
The taste is most often described as a combination of black pepper and ginger.
History of Uses Grains of Paradise
Originally transported west along Saharan on caravan routes, melegueta was known in ancient Rome and mentioned by Pliny as African Pepper. During the 14th century and 15th century, grains of paradise became popular in Europe.
In fact, the spice was popular enough that the West Coast of African became known as the grain coast. The name grains of paradise was simply a reflection of the West’s desire for Eastern spices, along with a fascination with the Garden of Eden.
The spice was used in Europe in food in much the same way as black pepper, and in beverages like beer and wine. It was also taken along on ships, especially slave ships, because it was thought to prevent dysentery and other stomach ailments. In those days, black peppercorns were very expensive simply because there was no easy way to get true pepper from Asia to the West. Melegueta became a prized substitute.
It lost favor when less expensive spices black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace became available with the opening of an ocean route to Asia. It was still popular in English cooking up until the 19th century, however.
Today, the spice is not used much outside of North and West Africa, and is still only grown along the west coast, mainly in Gauna. It is a principal ingredient in the Tunisian spice blend calld Qâlat daqqa and in Moroccan res el hanout. However, reflecting its traditional use as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages, it is used in Samuel Adams Summer Ale, along with lemon peel.
It also still used in Scandinavian akvavit (or aquavit, pronounced aqua-veet), which spiced liqueur based on a neutral spirit from grains or potato, also featuring caraway and dill and sometimes cumin, fennel, and orange peel. The spice is still used in beers and gins, as well.
Buying Grains of Paradise
Grains of Paradise, although virtually forgotten by Western cooks, can still be purchased in Middle Eastern, African, or Indian markets. The spice is also available on Amazon, such as the Frontier Grains Of Paradise w/ Grinder.
Grains of Paradise is also called alligator pepper, Guinea pepper, Melegueta pepper, ginger pepper, and alligator pepper. It was also called British pepper.
The Difference Between Melegueta and Malagueta
Melegueta pepper may easily be confused with Malagueta Pepper (Capsicum frutescens v. malagueta), which are actually chiles, and sometimes called Malagueta chile or chillis to differentiate them.