There’s an enchanting new flavor blowing towards America from the exotic shores of Western Africa. Even its most familiar name – Grains of Paradise – delights the imagination and tempts the palate with the promise of culinary adventure.
This intriguing spice, often described as a vibrant blend of ginger, cardamom, and pepper, seems to be just as valuable in the medicine cabinet as it is in the spice rack. And although its arrival in the United States is a new chapter in the long, rich history of its story, the spice has made its way into many traditional dishes that are the mainstay of several global cuisines.
Native to the marshy coastal area of the Gulf of Guinea off Western Africa, this little-known member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) goes by a number of intriguing names. Botanically, it is the Aframomum melegueta but is known by other names to many people.
The indigenous Obro tribesmen have long known the melegueta pepper as yoruba; the Chitta call it hausa. Other local names include wisa, formwisa, efom wisa, and apokuo. Its peppery personality and native environment are undoubtedly responsible for its identification as Guinea pepper and alligator pepper.
In its native habitat, the melegueta pepper is one of the exotic spices used in the traditional recipes of the peoples of the Grain Coast, stretching from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. Trade routes spanning the vast African desert during the 13th century led to the introduction of this unforgettable flavor to Italy and, soon thereafter, to the rest of the European continent.
Italian intrigue fueled the spread of the name “Grains of Paradise” as demand from Elizabethan England generated a surge in popularity of this delightful flavor. It became a much-sought-after item on the list of new and exciting gourmet spices that was taking the continent by storm following the expansion of maritime trade routes to far-flung and exotic locales.
Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper were also delighting the palates of European aristocracy at the same time Grains of Paradise was introduced. Indeed, these are often companion seasonings used in recipes featuring Grains of Paradise.
Food fashions, as well as clothing fashions, follow trends and cycles and, over time, European interest in Grains of Paradise waned. It remains, however, as a signature flavoring agent for alcoholic beverages such as aquavit, gin, beer, and some of the more complexly flavored liqueurs.
A modern-day revival of interest of the earthy flavor of this highly aromatic spice makes it a highly desirable gift for friends and family members who enjoy cooking with exciting seasonings. Winter holidays, and the traditional showering of gifts they bring, provide the perfect opportunity to delight gourmet cooks on your list with gift baskets featuring this lively spice and perhaps a recipe or two for cooking ideas.
Grains of Paradise is an outstanding substitute for cardamom and black pepper. Recipes featuring Grains of Paradise to include on your spicy gifts list include traditional European breads and cookies that feature cardamom or black pepper.
Consider crusty artisan-inspired breads sprinkled with coarsely cracked seeds of Grains of Paradise paired with sesame, fennel, or caraway seeds. To further impress your dining companions, be sure to include a bowl of olive oil seasoned with Grains of Paradise and perhaps a little garlic and fresh thyme. A communal bowl of this delicious sauce is sure to enhance any meal when passed around so dinner guests can drizzle a generous spoonful on their breads. A small bowl of it at each plate adds a gourmet touch, too, and makes dipping irresistible.
Pfeffernusse, molasses, gingerbread, and other spiced cookies and biscotti are sure to please young and old alike. Put an air of intrigue in this year’s fruitcakes, too, by adding some ground Grains of Paradise along with the favorite spices you traditionally use.
Include Grains of Paradise in curried dishes of Northern African and Middle Eastern influence. Add it to zesty paella, cassoulets, and curry dishes. It’s a mainstay in Moroccan, Ghanaian, and Ethiopian cooking, too, so consider including it in your Kwanzaa food festivities. Equal parts curry and ground Grains of Paradise add a mischievous new twist to the ubiquitous holiday deviled egg, too.
Enliven your beverages with unground Grains of Paradise. Spice up some coffee to accompany a rich chocolaty dessert. For warm winter beverages laced with wine, rum, brandy, or whiskey, add some whole seeds of this mystical African spice to add an exotic touch of warmth to a chilly winter evening. Sprinkle freshly ground Grains of Paradise atop your favorite eggnog for a lively new spin on a traditional holiday treat.
Put some zest into your tea, served hot or iced, with the addition of some Grains of Paradise, a cinnamon stick, a slice of fresh ginger, and a generous dollop of honey during the steeping process. Try this same blend of seasonings with dried hibiscus flowers for a pleasantly pungent herbal tea.
Enjoy the versatile flavor of Grains of Paradise in everything from the main course to all the trimmings. Include it in beverages served hot or cold. Dazzle your dinner guests with this exotic new flavor they’re sure to remember all year long.
And don’t be surprised when your favorite restaurant starts featuring meals livened up with the flavor of Grains of Paradise. This exciting, exotic flavor works well from appetizer to dessert and innovative chefs everywhere will, no doubt, feature it proudly in the most imaginative ways. This lively flavor is sure to become one of the hottest food trends around.
In fact, a recent issue of the Culinary Trend Mapping Report identifies new and exotic spices as leading the way among food manufacturers and chefs alike as the most versatile innovation to the culinary arena of late. Watch for Grains of Paradise to quickly become celebrated as the industry’s favorite new superstar once the secret is out.
And reach for Grains of Paradise when you’re not feeling quite so dazzling, too.
Some exciting studies are being conducted at some very prestigious research facilities that are unlocking the secrets to the many medicinal values of Grains of Paradise. Its place as a functional food, one that provides both nourishment and health benefits, has been known throughout the ages in its indigenous Africa but scientists in the US are busy at work discovering new and exciting uses for this mystical plant.
The Rutgers University Biotechnology Center in New Jersey works with an amber-colored extract from the plant they consider more precious than the most rare golden topaz. This liquid “gemstone” is proving to be an incredibly powerful anti-inflammatory agent that rivals Vioxx, Celebrex, and Bextra and it seems to do so without the undesirable and dangerous side effects the prescription drugs are known to cause.
Phytomedics Inc., a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, is licensed by Avon Products Inc. to develop skin care products that harness the healing properties of liquid Grains of Paradise when applied to blemishes and injuries to the skin.
The signs of aging everyone dreads – wrinkled, dry skin that has lost its elasticity and sheen – are attributed to the effects of long-term inflammation triggered by a lifestyle that includes poor dietary choices. Avon and Phytomedics are working together to develop a line of products that employ the anti-inflammatory properties of Grains of Paradise to offset this effect of enjoying a long life.
Phytomedics also finds that Grains of Paradise works as a powerful pain-relieving agent when rubbed on an arthritic joint. And, once again, chronic inflammation is being cited as the cause of arthritis in a growing list of scientific research studies.
Patents are pending for Interleukin Genetics, which is developing remedies based on Grains of Paradise, which are intended for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases, all thought to be triggered by the immune system’s response to inflammation.
The health-sustaining benefits of eating a diet high in foods known to offset the aging process, due to anti-inflammatory agents, was recently publicized on the Oprah show. Oprah’s nutritional expert, Dr. Nicholas Perricone, encourages a healthy diet, including beneficial herbs and spices, as a safe, natural, and highly effective means of living young forever.
Indeed, the peoples indigenous to Grains of Paradise’s native habitat have relied on the medicinal properties of this wonder plant for countless generations. In its native environment, people regularly chew seeds to relieve dysentery, toothache, migraines, and to reduce fever. It’s also said to be a potent sexual stimulant.
Even African gorillas are lending a hand in the discovery of the medicinal secrets locked away in these tiny powerhouses. These incredibly robust animals thrive in the wild but quickly decline in health once in captivity. Attention lately has compared their behaviors in the wild to their treatment after capture.
Seems even wild gorillas enjoy a daily dose of fresh seeds from Grains of Paradise plants in their native habitat. But once removed from the wild, and from Grains of Paradise, inflammatory conditions soon develop, with heart disease coming quickest.
Studies under way at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is now following the lead of the gorillas to explore the use of Grains of Paradise for treating heart disease and control of penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus infections. The powerful anti-inflammatory and antibiotic effects of Grains of Paradise are proving to be potent and very successful in repeated laboratory tests conducted throughout the United States.
Although grown in a very small geographic location, improved cultivation and harvest techniques are being studied by numerous entities. This exciting, delicious, medicinal plant is expected to soon become the darling of culinary society once again.