Melegueta Pepper / Grains of Paradise

The reddish brown seeds of a perennial herb in the ginger family, melegueta pepper (Aframomum melegueta) may be what “pre-adapted” Africans to their predilection for tiny, fiery chiles. The crunchy texture of the seeds has been likened to the woodiness of cracked black pepper, with its gingerols leaving a slightly numbing piquancy in the mouth reminiscent of cloves. The exquisitely warm flavors of this native of the West African wetlands have been called peppery, spicy, hot, gingery, and pleasantly bitter, with an aftertaste of lemon, cardamom, camphor, and cloves. The dozen chemicals already isolated from its essential oils suggest that it delivers a witch’s brew of pungency.

The first peoples to recognize the value of the melegueta pepper were the foraging and farming tribes of West Africa, mostly from present-day Ghana, but also from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The most ancient name for this spice was rooted in a cognate that may have been wiza, since it is known as awisa or awusa by the Ewe, wisa or wusa by the Fante, wie by the Ga-Dangme, citta by the Hausa, and eza by the Nzema. In North African Arabic and Berber, it became tin al-fil, or “pepper fruit,” and in Turkish it was known as itrifil, a condensation of terms meaning “African pepper.”

Long before the Portuguese came to dominate maritime trade with West African tribes, Berber, Arab, and Jewish merchants were obtaining melegueta pepper from the Pepper Coast of present-day Liberia, where harvests from the outback arrived in the ports. Tuareg camel caravans carried this highly valued spice up across the Sahel and the Sahara and then across the continent through the Sudan. These Arabic-speaking traders integrated it into an aromatic spice composite termed gâlat dagga, which also included black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, with cubeb sometimes substituted for the latter. Two other Arabic terms, jouz as-Sudan and gawz al-Sudan, probably reflected the sub-Saharan trade routes by which the spice entered the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. Melegueta pepper also came across the Sahara on trade routes to the coast of present-day Libya.

Once the Portuguese trading fleets ventured south of Morocco and Mauritania, they began to gain more direct access to the spice, which then, as now, went by several names. The term melegueta has uncertain origin, but it may be somehow linked to meligo, Italian for “millet,” or to Málaga, the ancient Phoenician port on the Andalusian coast across from Morocco. Another hypothesis is that it refers to the stinging and numbing sensations it produces, likening it to the effect one feels when stung by the malagua, or jellyfish, of coastal Africa. Curiously, the term melegueta was transferred to the tiny chiles that grew wild where the Portuguese established colonies of African slaves in Brazil.

Despite the wide acceptance of the spice elsewhere, the Portuguese must have felt that they needed to dress up its label for the European market (where it was only marginally known), so they gave it two new names, sementes-do-paraíso and grãos-do-paraíso. The notion of an exquisitely spicy seed straight from paradise took root among the French, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Chinese, and Romanian spice merchants. The Slovaks were holdouts, comparing its seeds to those of cardamom, as were the English, who called it Guinea grains or alligator pepper. It continues to be a popular addition to many dishes in West Africa; in Europe and the United States, it is primarily used to flavor boutique beers, ginger ale, and gin and as a substitute for peppercorns by some high-end chefs.

 

Resources: 
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed May 8, 2013.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2cVDRTZ
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press