What Are Grains of Paradise?

Buying, Using, Recipes

Grains of paradise, also called melegueta pepper

Grains of paradise is an aromatic spice that looks like peppercorns with origins in West Africa and notes of cardamom, coriander, citrus, ginger, nutmeg, and juniper. Packing a light, peppery heat, using grains of paradise seeds is a mouthwatering way to season myriad dishes. It can be used in place of black pepper for a much more complex and elevated flavor, added to spice rubs, braises, spice cakes or gingerbread, or even mixed into apple pie filling.

Fast Facts:

  • Flavor: Cardamom, coriander, citrus, ginger, nutmeg, juniper, citrus and pepper
  • Origin: West Africa
  • Substitution: A 1:1:1 ratio of ground black pepper, ground cardamom and ground ginger

What Is Grains Of Paradise?

Grains of paradise, also known as melegueta pepper, guinea grains, guinea pepper, and alligator pepper, is a seed that comes from the plant aframonum melegueta. From same family as ginger, the seed is reddish-brown and about ⅛-inch in diameter. Grains of paradise is used in West and North African cooking. It can also be included in the Moroccan spice blend ras el-hanout. Grains of paradise was used in European beer and winemaking until the 19th century. Over time, as the price of black pepper decreased, the use of grains of paradise declined. Today, it’s still used in the production of the Scandinavian spirit aquavit and is enjoying a nascent renaissance as celebrity chefs and curious home cooks experiment with it.

How To Cook With Grains Of Paradise

Grains of paradise is usually sold as the intact seed. You can use it whole as an aromatic to be removed and discarded before serving, similar to using other whole spices like cardamom or cloves. Lightly crush a couple of seeds (just enough so that they crack), toss into rice as it’s cooking (particularly if you’re using the rice for any Middle Eastern, African or Indian-inspired dish) and remove before serving. Use cracked seeds to flavor oil or butter before sauteing vegetables, or use grains of paradise in place of black peppercorn when making homemade chai.

For a stronger flavor, grind the seeds either by using a pepper mill or spice grinder, or manually with a mortar and pestle until pulverized. Use grains of paradise to substitute half the black pepper in your cacio e pepe for a unique take on this classic pasta dish. Try the ground spice as a finisher, like black pepper, to add nuance and complexity to a wide range of dishes.

grains of paradise
 Getty Images / Bruno AzuLay

What Does Grains Of Paradise Taste Like?

Grains of paradise has a complex flavor: woody, peppery, herby, with a warm subtle heat. You’ll find flavors of ginger, cardamom, citrus, coriander, nutmeg, and juniper in each little seed. While it does add heat, this heat builds slowly rather than being punchy and sharp like black pepper.

Substitutions

Use black pepper in any recipes that call for grains of paradise, or, to get a sense of the complexity of its flavor profile, try equal parts of ground black pepper, ground cardamom, and ground ginger.

Recipes

Use in place of back pepper in the following recipes. For the apple pie, add ¼ teaspoon of grains of paradise to the filling.

Where to Buy

You won’t find grains of paradise in typical chain grocery shops, but you can find it at African grocers, specialty spice shops, and at shops that sell brewing supplies. You can also order it from online spice shops and international markets.

How To Store

Store whole in an airtight container in a dark, dry place (like a pantry), and grind as needed. This will ensure the spice's flavors last for up to six months.