Alligator pepper (also known as mbongo spice, hepper pepper) is a North African spice which corresponds to the seeds and seed pods of Aframomum danielli, Aframomum citratum or Aframomum exscapum. It is a close relative of grains of paradise, obtained from the closely related species, Aframomum melegueta. However, unlike grains of paradise which are generally sold as only the seeds of the plant, Alligator pepper is sold as the entire pod containing the seeds (in the same manner to another close relative, black cardamom).
The plants which provide alligator pepper are herbaceous perennials of the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family of flowering plants that are native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Once the pod is open and the seeds are revealed the reason for this spice's common English name becomes apparent as the seeds have a papery skin enclosing them and the bumps of the seeds within this skin is reminiscent of an alligator's back.
As mbongo spice the seeds of alligator pepper is often sold as the grains themselves, isolated from the pod and with the outer skin removed. Mbongo spice is most commonly either Aframomum danielli or Aframomum citratum and has a more floral aroma than Aframomum exscapum (which is the commonest source of the entire pod).
It is a common ingredient in West African cuisine where it imparts both 'heat', 'pungency' and a spicy aroma to classic West African 'soups' (stews).
Use in cuisine
Even in West Africa, alligator pepper is an expensive spice and is used sparingly. Often a single whole pod is pounded in a pestle and mortar before half of it is added (along with black pepper) as a flavouring to West African 'soups' (stews) or to boiled rice. The spice can also be substituted in any recipe using grains of paradise or black cardamom to provide a hotter and more pungent flavour.
When a baby is born in Yoruba culture, they are given a small taste of alligator pepper shortly after birth as part of the routine baby welcoming process and it is also used as an ingredient at traditional meet-and-greets.
In Igbo land, alligator pepper with kola nuts are used in naming ceremonies, as presentation to visiting guests and for other social events.
- Celtnet Spice Guide  (accessed July 21, 2007)
- Gernot Katzer's spice dictionary  (accessed July 22, 2007)
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