Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spice University - Grains of Paradise

A Little Spice of Life
From the Colonel

Grains of Paradise Aframomum melegueta

It is truly a wonderful thing when you find something that you have never had before and discover that it is incredible. This was my experience with something called Grains of Paradise. I had heard of it many times before. Alton Brown on the Food Channel goes all misty eyed just talking about it. Many of my customers had requested it. The only problem seemed to lie in how difficult it was to find. I like to pride myself on having some pretty darn good resources and I looked, and looked, and looked some more. Grains of Paradise are pretty rare. Then I found them. The day they arrived I was filled with trepidation. Now that they were here, was I really going to like them or would they be like Indian Black Salt and wreak havoc with my taste buds? I found myself throwing caution to the wind (those of you that know me are now saying, “what’s new?”). I threw three or four of them in my mouth and began to chew. Wow! First, came the wonderful floral flavor and aroma that hits your palate with coriander. This was followed by an incredible heat. Not the chili pepper kind, but more like a good quality black peppercorn, which blended with the coriander flavor beautifully. To heck with Alton Brown, now I was getting misty eyed. So here’s the scoop on Grains of Paradise.

Grains of Paradise are the seeds of a tropical plant that is in the ginger family. Grains of Paradise are native to Africa’s West coast. In recent years this area of Africa has seen a lot of political and economic upheaval, which is one of the reasons that Grains of Paradise are sometimes difficult to find. Most Grains of Paradise imports stem from Ghana. In the countries of origin, the seeds are used not only to flavor food, but they are also chewed on cold days to warm the body.

In the Middle Ages, the spice was termed grana paradisi “Grains of Paradise” because of its high value. The name also reflects the medieval conception of an “earthly paradise” full of the scent of spices. Grains of Paradise 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. In those times, Grains of Paradise were a substitute for black pepper. The West African coast got its nickname “pepper coast” because Grains of Paradise were traded there. Later, in the Renaissance, when pepper had outrun them as the favorite kitchen spice, Grains of Paradise were commonly used as beer flavoring. Since that time the importance of and, subsequently, the knowledge of Grains of Paradise (outside of its native lands) has fallen to nil.

In addition to North Africa and Morocco, Grains of Paradise are also popular in neighboring Tunisia. Tunisian stews are frequently flavored with an aromatic mixture called gâlat dagga, which contains Grains of Paradise. This blended ingredient also contains black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This type of pungent aromatic mixture makes this a good example of a traditional Arabic spice blend.

There is no good substitute for Grains of Paradise. Many try black pepper, but what’s the point?

Kickin' Peach Cobbler
Grains of Paradise Pesto

Colonel De Stewart

1 comment:

Bill said...

Hey Col. I worked for Charlie Trotter for 3.5 months and we used Grains of Paradise to finish all the dishes. I even got a quote from him concering Grains on my blog