Grains of paradise (botanical name Aframomum melegueta) is an herblike perennially growing plant that is indigenous to the marshy habitations the length of the coast in West Africa. This species belongs to the ginger family - Zingiberaceae. Occasionally, the stems of grains of paradise may be small and they generally bear marks of fallen leaves and scars. On average, the leaves of this plant are 35 cm long and 15 cm broad, having an excellent arrangement of the vascular system. Grains of paradise flowers are attractive and fragrant. While the upper part of the flowers has a rich pinkish-orange hue, their lip is orange-colored. The fruits of this herbaceous plant enclose many, minuscule golden reddish-brown seeds.
For several centuries, people in West Africa, native place of this herbaceous plant, have used the seeds for several purposes, including medicinal and culinary. Even in Europe, people have been using the seeds since the 800s. Currently, the seeds are used extensively in the northern regions of Africa and to some extent in Europe. They are available in a number of stores that specialize in selling spices. Alternatively, you may also order them through traders importing spices.
In the 14th century, some traders christened the seeds of Aframomum melegueta as grains of paradise to make the spice appear more exotic and, raise the price of the commodity in this manner. In the 15th century, it became fashionable for a while to use grains of paradise in place of black pepper, a more costly spice. However, over the years, grains of paradise have turned out to be more expensive compared to black pepper.
A peppery spice, grains of paradise is also known by a number of other names, including Guinea grains, alligator pepper and melegueta pepper. As the alternative names of this spice suggest, it has a somewhat peppery flavour. However, the taste of grains of paradise is further complex to black pepper. In fact, its flavour can also be compared to that of ginger, coriander and cardamom with a tinge of citrus. Occasionally, some people describe the scent of this spice as being extremely "floral". Although the flavour of grains of paradise is mild compared to black pepper, it is loaded with a kick, particularly when you use it in large quantities.
Initially, the seeds of grains of paradise inside the pods have a reddish-brown color and as they mature, their color changes to grey. The seeds are sold as whole as well as ground form. Generally, the quality of this spice is superior when the grains of paradise are in whole form. Moreover, the whole seeds are useful for chefs as they can grind them to the extend they require for each particular dish.
As far as grains of paradise's true identity is concerned, there is some confusion, because sometimes the term grains of paradise is wrongly applied to seven fruit species, especially Cardamomum minus, Cardamomum malabaricum, Malabar cardamom and even the Zanzibar pepper. Some people also mistake Nux vomica, which is employed in the form of a homeopathic remedy, for the fruits of the grains of paradise. In effect, now Aframomum melegueta has been recognized as the true grains of paradise species. Precisely speaking, since the Middle Ages, people have know this fruit as "grains of paradise" and the name signifies the fact that there was a time when this fruit was a very valuable commodity.
Similar to cardamom, the grains of paradise is also used in the form of a spice, mainly owing to the pleasing flavour of the seeds. The grains of paradise seeds are pungent or spicy, but not extremely bitter to taste. These days, this fruit is primarily employed to add essence to spirits, wines and beer. However, during the Middle Ages this was a very popular spice in Europe as well as many other regions of the world. Notwithstanding the popularity of the spice in the past, currently very few people outside the African continent are familiar with grains of paradise. However, it is still a popular spice in Arab cuisine, especially Tunisia and Morocco. While many people have used this fruit as a substitute of black pepper, some have also been chewing it, especially in cold weather conditions with a view to keep their body warm. Moreover, the seeds of grains of paradise are commonly added to veterinary medicines.
People in Africa as well as nearly all other tropical regions cultivate grains of paradise (A. melegueta). They have been using the fruit of this species to treat various health conditions. However, currently this fruit is seldom used outside its native regions. The grain of paradise is one plant that is exclusively used in traditional African medicine.
Although the essential oil obtained from grains of paradise is available, it is very difficult to find. The attributes of the essential oils are akin to those of the grains of paradise fruit. However, the oil is usually preferred for its aroma. In many African countries, people use the grains of paradise fruit in the form of an aphrodisiac, in addition to a remedy for leprosy and measles. It is interesting to note that in laboratory studies the extract of this fruit has shown to augment sexual arousal as well as sexual behaviour in male rats. In addition, the extract of A. melegueta is also employed to reduce bleedings or hemorrhages, especially those related to childbirth.
Grains of paradise also contains a number of other phytochemicals that possess purgative (potent laxative), anthelmintic or anti-parasitic (effective against worms and others), galactogogue (increases breast milk production), and hemostatic (a medicine that purifies the blood) properties. This herbaceous plant has also been found to be effectual in treating the deadly condition known as schistomosiasis, which is a main predicament for medical authorities in many places in Africa.
The fruit of grains of paradise is also known to be effectual in treating intestinal infestations and infections. Some people also use this plant's fruit to cure indigestion and calm heartburn. It is interesting to note that the fruit of grains of paradise is among the plants that scientists are studying currently to determine if it can be used as a substitute for allopathic medications in the tropical regions, where people are constantly endeavouring to discover inexpensive as well as more easily and locally available phytomedical alternatives to treat the common health conditions prevailing in these regions. In fact, people in these areas are most commonly affected by various tropical diseases.
It is worth mentioning here that often it has been found that phytomedicines, which are naturally occurring remedies, are compared to synthetically manufactured medicines.
The use of grains of paradise is quite familiar in Chinese herbal medicine, wherein they are sometimes used as a substitute for cardamom, which is available more readily. In Chinese herbal medicine, grains of paradise are recommended for treating intestinal uneasiness, vomiting as well as pain and uneasiness during pregnancy.
In West African traditional medicines, people also use the seeds as well as the rhizomes of Aframomum melegueta in the form of aphrodisiac, diuretic and even stimulants. Studies undertaken on rats in laboratories also endure the view that grains of paradise seeds and rhizomes augment the sexual urge (libido), especially in rodents, and they also possess the aptitude to alleviate pain as well as inflammation. Therefore, it is believed that they may be useful in treating arthritis. Nevertheless, further studies are necessary; especially they need to be examined on humans, before using them to treat arthritis.
Gorillas inhabiting the lowlands in West Africa consume the seeds of grains of paradise via their diet and it seems that the seeds possess some kind of therapeutic properties for these animals' cardiovascular health in the wild. Since the diet of the captive lowland gorillas does not include these seeds, they may sometimes suffer from poor cardiovascular health, especially the animals living in zoos.
The seeds of grains of paradise may be used in the same way as you use black pepper. You may either ground the seeds during cooking to infuse their flavour or use them on the tableside to relish an enhancement of spice. As the taste of these seeds can be so different and compared to so many things, you may employ them to augment as well as contrast the primary flavours of any dish.
If you desire, you may accentuate the seeds' citrus flavours by breaking some and adding them to garnish salads. The seeds have a somewhat herbiness, which can be augmented by combining it with herbs like thyme (preferably lemon thyme), sage and rosemary. You may also add them to curries as well as rich sauces to augment their flavour. They are also used in gingerbreads and spice cakes. Grains of paradise seeds possess sweet warmth. The seeds impart a peppery heat to all these foods, but it is less punchy compared to the black peppers, but never less palatable. Hence, most people have a preference for these spicy seeds.
You may also crush some seeds and use them in combination with vinegar and garlic to rub the mixture on chicken, lamb or pork prior to roasting. Most importantly, grains of paradise seeds can easily replace black pepper.
Aframomum melegueta or grains of paradise plants have a preference for marshy habitats. However, this species is also fond of warm weather conditions. The climate in West Africa is perfect for cultivating this species, together with a number of other tropical species. In fact, Aframomum melegueta was among the earliest spices that were imported by Europe from Africa.
Chemical analysis of the grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) seeds has shown that they contain essential oils like paradol, gingerol and shagaol. These oils, which are the active constituents of the seeds, are said to contribute to their peppery, hot and somewhat bitter flavour. In addition, the seeds also enclose other nutrients such as manganese, starch, tannin, gum and a form of brown resin. Several studies have shown that the seeds of grains of paradise have effectual antimicrobial and anti-fungal activities.
Grains of paradise seeds are considered to be safe for use by nearly all adults. Nevertheless, the use of these seeds may sometimes result in irritation or pain in the stomach, intestine as well as the urinary system.
As there is very little information regarding the effects of using grains of paradise during pregnancy and by nursing mothers, it is advisable that they should stay away from these seeds to be on the safer side or contact a doctor before using them.