- For the similarly-named Luso-Brazilian chili pepper, see Malagueta pepper.
Aframomum melegueta is a species in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. It is commonly known as Guinea pepper, Melegueta pepper, alligator pepper and Guinea grains. Grains of paradise, a West African spice that gives a pungent, peppery flavor, is obtained from this plant. It is a herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Its trumpet-shaped, purple flowers develop into 5 to 7 cm long pods containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds.
The seeds have a pungent, peppery taste due to aromatic ketones, e.g., (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, occur only in traces.
Grains of paradise are commonly employed in the cooking styles of West Africa and North Africa, where they have been traditionally imported via caravan routes through the Sahara desert. Grains of paradise became a very fashionable substitute for black pepper in the 14th and 15th century Europe, especially in northern France, one of the most populous regions in Europe at the time. In the early modern period, the craze for the spice waned and it became more common as a flavorer for sausages and beer. Today it is largely unknown outside of West and North Africa except as flavorers in some beers, gins and Norwegian aquavit.
In West African folk medicine, grains of paradise are valued for their warming and digestive properties. A. melegueta has been introduced to the Caribbean Islands, where it is used as medicine and for religious (voodoo) rites.
For an article on gorillas, heart disease, and Aframomum melegueta, see: BioScience, v57 (May 2007) pp. 392–397 Out of Africa: A Tale of Gorillas, Heart Disease... and a Swamp Plant STORY BY CHERYL LYN DYBAS and PHOTOGRAPHY BY ILYA RASKIN