Grains of paradise are the seeds from a plant that is a member of the ginger and cardamom family. These herbaceous, cardamom-like, leafy-stemmed shrubs grow from a stout rhizome and may vary considerably depending upon where they are growing in West Africa. Similar to cardamom, the flowers are borne on 2-inch (5 cm) stems that emerge at the base just above ground level, and are followed by pear-shaped, 4-inch (10 cm) long red to orange fruits that contain many seeds. The aromatic and pungent hard, roundish, dark brown, small seeds are 1/8 inch (3 mm) in diameter. Their taste is initially piney, then peppery, hot, biting and numbing like native Australian mountain pepperberry (Tasmannia lanceolata). Similarly, a lingering camphor flavor with notes of turpentine is detectable.
Origin and History:
Grains of paradise (Melegueta pepper) is indigenous to the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Angola. The common name "Melegueta" derives from Melle, the name of an old empire inhabited by the Mandingos in the upper Niger country situated between Mauritania and Sudan. The Portuguese called it Terra de Malaguet, and the coast to its west, referred to as the "Gold Coast," was also named the "Grain Coast" and the "Pepper Coast" after this spice.
The earliest records of grains of paradise date from 1214. In the 13th century, the court physician of Emperor John III at Nicea prescribed it and grana paradisi was listed among spices sold at Lyons in 1245. The name "grains of paradise" was coined because the Italian traders who shipped it from the Mediterranean port of Monti di Borea had no idea of its origin, as it was transported overland through the desert to Tripoli. By the mid-14th century, direct sea routes to West Africa were plied by ships loaded with ivory and malaguette. Although unrelated to pepper, but seen as an acceptable alternative, it enjoyed popularity in Europe, encouraged at the time because the sea route to India was not discovered until the rounding of the Cape in 1486.
The year 1460 saw the financial ruin of many spice merchants, brought about by a Portuguese squadron that returned from the West Coast of Africa with a cargo of slaves and grains of paradise. This sudden flooding of the market with Melegueta pepper caused the Lisbon price of black pepper to crash.
In the 16th century the English were actively trading ivory, pepper and grains of paradise from the Gold Coast. The herbalist John Gerard mentions its medicinal virtues and both the seeds and rhizomes were used medicinally in West Africa. The seeds were an ingredient in the spiced wine known as hippocras and its pungency was exploited to give an artificial strength of flavor to wines, beer, spirits and vinegar. Elizabeth I was reported to have a personal fondness for grains of paradise, but by the 19th century they had fallen out of favor in Western cuisine and during the 20th century were generally only referred to as a curiosity.
Weight per Teaspoon (5 ml):
whole: 3.0 g ground: 2.8 g
most dishes in the same way as pepper Tunisian stews game slow-cooked casseroles
This spice is so rare it is not generally added to spice blends; however, it has been included in:
allspice bay leaves cardamom chili cinnamon and cassia cloves coriander seed cumin garlic ginger kokam rosemary star anise tamarind thyme turmeric
Buying and Storage:
Grains of paradise are difficult to find in Western countries, as their supply is hampered by three limiting factors. First, to drug enforcement agencies, the name conjures up notions of mind-altering substances; second, their importation and use as an adulterant to pepper has been banned in some countries; and third, the crop has never experienced organized cultivation. Thus, with the exception of small quantities secured from West Africa by spiceophiles, it is likely to remain almost unprocurable. For those lucky enough to obtain some, only buy them whole and store in an airtight container away from extremes of heat and humidity. Under these conditions the flavor will last for up to five years.
A reasonable substitute for grains of paradise can be made by pounding together in a mortar and pestle six seeds from a brown cardamom pod, four black peppercorns and one mountain pepperberry. Store in the same manner as other ground spices.
Grains of paradise are used in much the same way as pepper and in the region they come from are considered an acceptable alternative, as well as being the preferred spice in some of their local dishes. Exotic Moroccan spice blends such as ras el hanout may contain the crushed seeds and their peppery notes will be found in Tunisian stews spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It is best to grind grains of paradise before adding them to a dish, as this releases their flavor.