Grains of Paradise are so named for a reason! This little spice has notes of citrus in its aroma, which give way to a pungent and peppery flavor, tasting of ginger and cardamom. With an aromatic flavor like that, one has to wonder why Grains of Paradise, a favorite in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, slipped beneath the radar for so many years.
These brown seeds, which are related to cardamom, are spicy and warm, with a sharp peppery bite and refreshing astringency. They are still commonly used as a substitute for black pepper, but they are also terrific in their own right on vegetables, particularly potatoes, eggplants and pumpkin. Grains of Paradise are also well suited for giving a little flavor kick to poached or roasted fruit. The seeds may even be chewed on cold days to warm the body!
For best results, Grains of Paradise should be ground right before use, like black peppercorns, and added shortly before serving.
A Little History
Grains of Paradise, also known as Guinea Pepper, poivre de Guinée in France, Malaguita Pepper and Alligator Pepper, were an important spice in 15th-century Europe, when spices were high in demand, but the sea route to India had not yet been discovered. They hail from the coastal region of West Africa, which earned the name "pepper coast" because the Grains of Paradise were traded there. In these times, Grains of Paradise were a common substitute for black pepper.
Later, in the Renaissance, when pepper had outrun the grains as the favorite kitchen spice, Grains of Paradise were common as a flavoring for beverages including beer and gin and vinegar (we do mean vinegar as a beverage!). Throughout, it remained a popular spice in Morocco and Tunisia.
Today, this spice is gaining increasing popularity with professional chefs, alone and as a part of more complex spice mixtures.
A New York Times piece written by Amanda Hesser several years ago helped to popularize Grains of Paradise. She wrote, "I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper at the back of my mouth. The taste changes in a second. The heat lingered. But the spice flavor was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts. They were entirely different from black peppercorns and in my mind, incomparably better". Mmmm….