What are Grains of Paradise?

Grains of Paradise are practically unknown in modern Western cuisine, although it was used in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was a flavouring for the old wine ‘Hippocras” and is still used for the production of beer, wine and spirits, and the flavouring of vinegar.

Originally transported across the Sahara by caravan, the spices were popular in Europe from the time of Elizabeth I, who personally had a predilection for them, until the time of George III who proscribed them, amongst other things. Trade dwindled and only the Scandinavians, who had a West African foothold, continued to use them.

Meleguetta pepper (Aframomum melegueta) was generally known as ‘Grains of Paradise’. In fact there are two spices, meleguetta pepper and the true Grains of Paradise, Aframomum granum paradisi, referred to by this name. The Grain Coast of West Africa is named for the spice in the same way as the other ‘Coasts’ are called Ivory, Gold and Slave.

Spice Description

This is the small, red-brown irregular seeds of a cardamom-like plant. The seeds are 3-4 mm (1/8”) in diameter and are numerously contained in a brown wrinkled, fig-shaped dried capsule about 30mm (1-1/4”) in length; they have a white kernel. They are rarely found in the West.

Bouquet: Aromatic, spicy
Flavour: Pungent and peppery, tasting strongly of ginger and cardamom
Hotness Scale: 5

Preparation and Storage

Grains of Paradise seeds can be ground in a mill like peppercorns or may be used in the same way as cardamom, either by frying whole or pounding with other spices. Store in an airtight container.

Cooking with Grains of Paradise

Grains of Paradise may be used for culinary purposes and as a substitute for pepper in centres of local production. Its use is generally confined to West African cookery, though it may also find its way into Moroccan ras el hanout combinations. Some ancient European recipes may call for it, but pepper mixed with a little ginger may be substituted. Today in Scandinavia, the seeds are used to flavour akvavit. They may be chewed to sweeten the breath.

Health Benefits of Grains of Paradise

Stimulant, carminative and diuretic, the seeds are mainly used in some veterinary medicines. They appear in old pharmacopoeias. Gerard (1597) says: ‘The graines chewed in the mouth draw forth from the head and stocke waterish pituitous homors…They also comfort and warme the weake, cold and feeble stomacke, helpe the ague, and rid the shaking fits, being drunke with Sacke’. The seeds and rhizomes are used in West African herbal medicines.

Plant Description and Cultivation

A tropical reed-like plant of the ginger family, related to the cardamom. Growing from a rhizome, it reaches 1m (3ft). the leaves are narrow, bamboo-like, 25 x 2.5 cm (10 x1”); the flowers are single pink lilies at the base of the plant. these are followed by reddish-brown ovoid capsules, almost 30mm (1-1/4”) long, enclosed in leafy bracts. the capsules contain many red to brown angular seeds, in a jelly-like pulp. The flowers and rhizomes have a gingery smell. A plant of the moist forest regions of West Africa, it is sometimes cultivated for the spicy seeds. the methods used are similar to those for cardamom and ginger.

Other names

Melegueta pepper, Alligator Pepper, Ginny Grains, Ginny Papper, Graines, Greater Cardamom, Grenes, Guinea Grains, Guinea Pepper, Guinea Seeds, Maniguetta, Maniguette, Melaguata, Meligetta Pepper, Paradise Grains, Paradise Nuts

French: poivre de Guinée, malaguette. maniquette
German: Malagettapfeffer, Paradieskorner
Italian: grani de Meleguetta, grani de paradiso
Spanish: malagueta

Scientific Name

Aframomum granum paradisi syn Amomum melegueta Fam Zingiberaceae

Photo by Shaddiii / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)