Spicelight: Grains of Paradise

When you close your eyes and dream of paradise, what do you smell?

When I close my eyes and smell freshly ground Grains of Paradise, I sense hints of hazelnut, cocoa butter and citrus. There’s a tangerine sweetness in there too, similar to fresh ground coriander. Its aroma is sweet, earthy, floral, and nutty. You’d never guess it’s almost as hot as black pepper.

The botanical name for Grains of Paradise is Aframomum melegueta, but it also goes by Guinea Pepper and Melegueta Pepper. It grows on a leafy plant with its seeds hidden within crimson pods. It belongs to the same family as ginger and cardamom, which helps explain its fiery disposition. The same bite one gets from ginger is reminiscent of Grains of Paradise, but deliciously amplified. This is because it contains the chemical compound gingerol, the same compound present in turmeric, cardamom, and…yes…ginger!

In the Middle Ages, traders sold Grains of Paradise to compete with black pepper since it was a less expensive alternative to the pricey peppercorn. Spice traders told buyers in Europe that the seeds grew only in the Garden of Eden and floated down rivers from paradise! Based on intrigue and cost, the spice gained popularity in the late fourteen hundreds. It even caused a price drop for black pepper in Portugal, putting some pepper traders out of business.

Today, Grains of Paradise is predominantly used by craft brewers, distillers, and high-end chefs. The plant is native to coastal West Africa. Ghana is the leading producer. Ghanaian cuisine is heavy on vegetables, grains, and seafood. More authentic uses of this spice might be with grilled fish, stewed okra, pumpkin soup, or baked yams. From an outsider’s perspective, you could try pairing it with grilled lamb skewers, honey glazed chicken, fried zucchini or even a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

The first time I had the pleasure of smelling Grains of Paradise was in the blending room at our Evanston shop. I was making a fresh batch of our Hyde Park Seasoning, which uses this spice. I ground just enough for the batch and was blown away by the new aroma. “Whoa.”

To use this spice at home, you can load it right into your pepper mill, just like bits of long pepper. It might be best to clean out any pepper remnants left in the hopper first, so as not to confuse your soon-to-be-delighted palate. You can substitute Grains of Paradise for black pepper in your cooking or table-side use. However, their flavors are uniquely different. One of our Evanston Spice House customers uses it 50/50 in her pepper mill with our Tellicherry black peppercorns

At the time of this Spicelight writing, it is now peak produce season here in the Midwest, but pumpkins are not yet available. Since ginger and Grains of Paradise are related, I felt they’d pair well in a ginger-carrot soup. The sweetness of the carrots and fresh ginger fall in love with the heat from the grains. You can cool it all off with intermittent tastes of sour cream between spoonfuls of soup.

This recipe is easy to make and can be prepared in half an hour. As a Midwesterner, I’m partial to sour cream but you can substitute Greek yogurt, or coconut milk if you’re vegan. The coconut flavor pairs really well with this spice too. Happy cooking!

Geoff Marshall is Web Content Manager at the Spice House. He loves writing stories and recipes for the blog. When he’s not nose deep in one of Tom and Patty’s many spice encyclopedias, you’ll find him daydreaming of dinner prep or riding his bicycle.

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