26 April 2010

A&S 50: Food item eight: Grains of Paradise

Spice: Grains of Paradise
Julia May, aka Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Copyright March 2010

According to legend, wonderful grains are collected by the pound from the river which flows out of Paradise!

While Islamic cooks had known about them for a long while, the spice was introduced to the Italian markets in the thirteenth century. Grains of Paradise, or Paradise seed, enjoyed almost instant stardom across Western Europe, with the pungent flavor being compared to black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger all at once.

While it would be wonderful to trace the origins back to Paradise, these seeds actually originated from West Africa. Being a member of the ginger family, grains of Paradise are also related to cardamom. The plant grows 2-3 feet high and has spiky fern-like leaves. The plant pods are dried before the seeds are extracted. At one time grains of Paradise, or Aframomum meleguetta, were transported by camel overland across the Sahara Desert and were traded throughout Islamic lands. Spanish traders later discovered waterways and risked being washed out to the Ocean in the fabled undercurrent located where the sea and the ocean joined.

Its European fame was relatively short-lived. In the fifteenth century, as the Ottoman conquest was concluding, trade across the Eastern Mediterranean revived and the price of black pepper dropped by almost half, while grains of Paradise remained stable, and therefore unable to compete.

About the size of a peppercorn, grains of Paradise can be substituted in any recipe that calls for either pepper or cardamom, whether savory or sweet (including shortbread). Being hot and moist, according to humoral theory, they refresh the body’s natural tendencies and therefore were frequently listed in recipes for restorative drinks such as hippocras, a complex spiced wine which was prescribed by medieval doctors to balance humors in the sick.

I heartily recommend biting into a grain of Paradise when you have the opportunity. It is a cornucopia of flavor! Find grains of Paradise in your local brewing store (it’s still used in modern micro-brews), or on the Internet. I have had good luck with Auntie Arwen’s Spices at http://www.auntiearwenspices.com/.

If you don’t have one yet, get a new coffee grinder and dedicate it solely to spices. These grains are tough to crush!

Jaunce, French sauce for grilled meats (dated 1420) from The Medieval Kitchen

2 oz. bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
1 c. broth
3 T. verjuice (or equal parts cider vinegar and water)
½ t. ground grains of Paradise
¼ t. ground ginger
¼ t. ground black pepper
1 pinch of saffron

Mix the egg and breadcrumbs and allow to stand for a minute. Add the broth and spices, then the verjuice, stirring to combine. Transfer to a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add salt to taste and serve hot.


Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. California Studies in Food and Culture ed. Vol. 1. Univ. of California Press, 2000.

Keay, John. The Spice Route: A History. Univ. of California Press, 2006.

Redon, Odile, Fran├žoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. Trans. Edward Schneider. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Holy cats, this is a really cool blog! I stumbled into it while doing a little research about joining an SCA branch near me and I've been eagerly devouring your articles for the past half-hour now. The crusades and the islamic side of life in the Levant have interested me for a while now, and this study in material culture is super cool. I hope you write another post soon!