In Europe, it was often substituted for black pepper--until Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498 and replenished supplies of black pepper. The seeds were first named "Grains of Paradise" in the Middle Ages, when they were enjoyed as flavorings. They were often used throughout history to flavor alcohol. In fact, while England's Queen Elizabeth I used the grains for spicing wines and strengthening beer, King George III later declared the practice illegal and issued a heavy fine on any brewer who possessed the grains--as well as any druggist who sold it to a brewer.
In the Caribbean islands, natives use the seeds for medicine and in voodoo rites. West Africans use the spice as a flavoring, but they also chew the seeds for their warming and digestive properties.
Grains of paradise or Aframomum Melegueta is commonly referred to as alligator pepper, Guinea pepper or Melegueta pepper. Wade into the swamps of the West African "pepper coast," and you'll find this herbaceous, leafy perennial. Its trumpet-shaped, purple flowers develop into 5 to 7 cm long pods containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds. The Melegueta plant is not related to the pepper vine but is a member of the ginger family. The sphere-like seeds of Grains of Paradise look very much like cardamom seeds. (Cardamom is also a member of the ginger family.)
The seeds have a pungent, peppery taste due to aromatic and essential oils, which are the dominating flavor components. They provide a warm spicy bite with slightly bitter overtones. The flavors are reminiscent of cardamom and coriander.
A New York Times article written by Amanda Hesser has popularized grains of paradise. She wrote, "I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper at the back of my mouth.
The taste changes in a second.
The heat lingered.
But the spice flavor was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts. They were entirely different from black peppercorns and in my mind, incomparably better.”
If you want to try Grains of Paradise, grains of paradise are available here.