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Grains of paradise

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Grains of paradise
Aframomum melegueta
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Clade: Commelinids
Order: Zingiberales
Family: Zingiberaceae
Genus: Aframomum
A. melegueta
Binomial name
Aframomum melegueta
  • Amomum melegueta

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) is a species in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, and closely related to cardamom. Its seeds are used as a spice (ground or whole); it imparts a pungent, black-pepper-like flavor with hints of citrus. It is also known as melegueta pepper, Guinea grains, ossame, or fom wisa, and is sometimes confused with alligator pepper. The terms African pepper and Guinea pepper have also been used, but are ambiguous as they can apply to other spices such as grains of Selim (Xylopia aethiopica).

It is native to West Africa, which is sometimes named the Pepper Coast (or Grain Coast) because of this commodity. It is also an important cash crop in the Basketo district of southern Ethiopia.[1][2]


Aframomum melegueta is an herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Its trumpet-shaped, purple flowers develop into pods 5–7 cm (2–3 in) long, containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds.

The pungent, peppery taste of the seeds is caused by aromatic ketones, such as (6)-paradol (systematic name: 1-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-decan-3-one). Essential oils, which are the dominating flavor components in the closely related cardamom,[3] occur only in traces.

The stem at times can be short, and usually shows signs of scars and dropped leaves. The leaves are narrow and similar to those of bamboo, with a well-structured vascular system. The flowers of the herbaceous plant are aromatic, with an orange-colored lip and rich pinkish-orange upper part. The fruits contain numerous, small, golden red-brown seeds.

The seeds of Aframomum melegueta


Melegueta is a major component in the diet of Western Lowland gorilla[4]—around 80 to 90 percent.[5] The gorillas eat the entire fruit and act as a source of seed dispersal for meleguetta. In addition to food, the plant is also the most common material used to make nests and beds.[5]


A. melegueta pods at a market in São João dos Angolares, São Tomé Island.

Melegueta pepper is commonly used in the cuisines of West and North Africa, from where it has been traditionally transported by camel caravan routes through the Sahara desert and distributed to Sicily and the rest of Italy. Mentioned by Pliny as "African pepper" but subsequently forgotten in Europe, they were renamed "grains of paradise" and became a popular substitute for black pepper in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.[6][7][8] The Ménagier de Paris recommends it for improving wine that "smells stale". Through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, the theory of the four humors governed theories about nourishment on the part of doctors, herbalists, and druggists. In this context, John Russell characterized grains of paradise in The Boke of Nurture as "hot and moist".[9]

In 1469, King Afonso V of Portugal granted the monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea to Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes.[10] This included the exclusivity in trade of Aframomum melegueta, then called malagueta pepper. The grant came at the cost of 100,000 real annually and agreement to explore 160 kilometres (100 mi) of the coast of Africa per year for five years; this gives some indication of the European value of the spice.[11] After Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492 and brought the first samples of the chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens) back with him to Europe, the name malagueta, and Spanish and Portuguese spelling, was then applied to the new chili "pepper" because its piquancy was reminiscent of grains of paradise.[7] Malagueta, thanks to its low price, remained popular in Europe even after the Portuguese opened the direct maritime route to the Spice Islands around 1500.[12] This namesake, the malagueta chili, remains popular in Brazil, the Caribbean, Portugal, and Mozambique.

The importance of the A. melegueta spice is shown by the designation of the area from the St. John River (near present-day Buchanan) to Harper in Liberia as the Grain Coast or Pepper Coast in honor of the availability of grains of paradise.[13] Later, the craze for the spice waned, and its uses were reduced to a flavoring for sausages and beer. In the 18th century, its importation to Great Britain collapsed after an act of Parliament[which?] during the reign of George III forbade its use in alcoholic beverages.[14][page needed] In 1855, England imported about 6,800 to 8,600 kilograms (15,000 to 19,000 lb) per year legally (duty paid).[13] By 1880, the 9th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica reported: "Grains of paradise are to some extent used in veterinary practice, but for the most part illegally to give a fictitious strength to malt liquors, gin, and cordials".[15]

The presence of the seeds in the diets of lowland gorillas in the wild seems to have some sort of beneficial effect on their cardiovascular health. They also eat the leaves, and use them for bedding material. The absence of the seeds in the diets of captive lowland gorillas may contribute to their occasionally poor cardiovascular health in zoos.[16][17]

Today the condiment is sometimes used in gourmet cuisine as a replacement for pepper, and to give unique flavor in some craft beers, gins, and Norwegian akvavit. Grains of paradise are starting to enjoy a slight resurgence in popularity in North America due to their use by some well-known chefs. Alton Brown is a fan of the condiment, and he uses it in okra stew and his apple-pie recipe on an episode of the TV cooking show Good Eats.[18] Grains of paradise are also used by people on certain diets, such as a raw food diet, because they are considered less irritating to digestion than black pepper.

Folk medicine and ritual uses[edit]

In West African folk medicine, grains of paradise are valued for their warming and digestive properties, and among the Efik people in Nigeria have been used for divination and ordeals determining guilt.[19] A. melegueta has been introduced to the Caribbean and Latin America, where it is used in Voodoo religious rites.[20][21] It is also found widely among Protestant Christian practitioners of African-American hoodoo and rootwork, where the seeds are employed in luck-bringing and may be held in the mouth or chewed to prove sincerity.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) Livelihood Profiles: Regional Overview" Archived 16 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine, FEWS Net (January 2005), p. 27 (accessed 18 May 2009)
  2. ^ Tchatchouang, S.; Beng, V. P.; Kuete, V. (1 January 2017), Kuete, Victor (ed.), "Chapter 11 - Antiemetic African Medicinal Spices and Vegetables", Medicinal Spices and Vegetables from Africa, Academic Press, pp. 299–313, ISBN 978-0-12-809286-6, retrieved 2 March 2021
  3. ^ Grains of paradise are listed among the varieties of caradmom in the 25th ed. of the Dispensatory of the United States of America (1955) p. 257, as Paul E. Beichner notes in "The Grain of Paradise", Speculum, vol. 36, no. 2 (April 1961), p. 303. Beichner suggests the miraculous "greyn" of Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale" was grains of paradise.
  4. ^ Marisa Eisenstein (5 December 2011). "Saving Gorillas Through the Power of Plants". Denver Botanic Gardens. Retrieved 7 June 2024.
  5. ^ a b Dybas; Raskin (2007). "Out of Africa: A Tale of Gorillas, Heart Disease... and a Swamp Plant". BioScience. 57 (5): 392–397.
  6. ^ Several medieval recipes are republished in Two Fifteenth-century Cookery-Books, Thomas Austin (ed,) Early English Texts Society, vol. 91 (1888) (cited in passing by Beichner 1961), under the names graynys of parise, graynis of parys, graynys of Perys, and simply graynis.
  7. ^ a b Daniel F. Austin, "Florida ethnobotany", p. 170, CRC Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8493-2332-0
  8. ^ "Its popularity may have been due to the brilliant name thought up for it by some advertising genius born before his times" observes Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Anthea Bell (tr.), The History of Food, revised ed., 2009, p. 446.
  9. ^ Noted, with other examples of fiery and watery grains of paradise, by Beichner 1961, p. 304, note 8; cardamom, with which it was often confused, as Cardamomum maius and Cardamomum minus, was reported by Dioscurides as hot and dry in its qualities, as recorded in the late 13th-century Herbal of Rufinus (Beichner, p. 305f).
  10. ^ "O Contrato de Fernão Gomes" (in Portuguese). Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2006.
  11. ^ Thorn, Rob. "Discoveries After Prince Henry". Archived from the original on 11 February 2007. Retrieved 24 December 2006.
  12. ^ Guidi Bruscoli, Francesco (2014) [c. 1450–1530)]. Bartolomeo Marchionni, "Homem de grossa fazenda". Firenze: Leo S. Olschki editore. pp. 92–93. ISBN 9788822263001.
  13. ^ a b Laurie's Sailing Directory for the Ethiopic or Southern Atlantic Ocean to the Rio de la Plata, Cape Horn, and the Cape of Good Hope etc., including the Islands between the two coasts; 4th ed., 1855
  14. ^ Kup, Peter; A History of Sierra Leone, 1400–1787 (Cambridge University)
  15. ^ Baynes, T. S.; Smith, W. R., eds. (1880). "Grains of Paradise" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 11 (9th ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  16. ^ "Gorilla diet protects heart: Grains of paradise". AskNature.org. Biomimicry Institute. 20 February 2012. Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  17. ^ Dybas, Cheryl Lyn; Raskin, Ilya (photographer), "Out of Africa: A Tale of Gorillas, Heart Disease ... and a Swamp Plant" Archived 1 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine, BioScience, vol. 57 (May 2007) pp. 392–397.
  18. ^ Brown, Alton, "Apple of My Pie", Good Eats, season 11, episode 15.
  19. ^ Simmons, Donald C. (1956). "Efik Divination, Ordeals, and Omens". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 12 (2): 223–228. doi:10.1086/soutjanth.12.2.3629116. S2CID 163651830.
  20. ^ Voeks, Robert (2013). "Ethnobotany of Brazil's African Diaspora: The Role of Floristic Homogenization". African Ethnobotany in the Americas. Springer. pp. 395–416. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-0836-9_14. ISBN 978-1-4614-0835-2.
  21. ^ Moret, Erica S. (2013). "Trans-Atlantic Diaspora Ethnobotany: Legacies of West African and Iberian Mediterranean Migration in Central Cuba". African Ethnobotany in the Americas. Springer. pp. 217–245. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-0836-9_9. ISBN 978-1-4614-0835-2.
  22. ^ Yronwode, Catherine (2002). Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure. Lucky Mojo. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-0-9719612-1-0.

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