Grains of paradise are certainly a spice whose name proceeds them. In my continued efforts to find an alternative to black pepper on the dinner table, this may be the strongest candidate yet. It's a lot more interesting than black pepper and—as far as I'm concerned—far more versatile. Plus it's also called alligator pepper. How cool is that?
What's the story with grains of paradise? They certainly look like black pepper, but they're dried seeds, not berries. Also unlike black pepper, they're native to Africa, not Asia, conveniently closer to historically spice-hungry Europe. Several hundred years ago, black pepper was much more expensive and difficult to obtain than now, so spice traders sold grains of paradise as a pepper substitute from nearby Africa. As imperially-supported industry exponentially increased black pepper's availability, grains of paradise fell out of favor. Due to lack of demand and a smaller-scaled export economy, grains of paradise prices are now considerably higher than black pepper's. Now they're largely unknown, but lately gourmets attracted by their intriguing flavor and unavailable-as-desirable caché have worked hard to popularize them. You can't make up this kind of history.
What Does It Taste Like?
Grains of paradise are a spice worth a couple minutes' meditation. Smell a small handful and you'll be hit by an intense woody, almost forest-like aroma. Then pop one in your mouth and bite down. There's an initial burst of inviting, peppery warmth, full but in no way harsh. Then a lifting note of citrus and something almost herby. In an instant the spice's woody character takes hold, and tree bark gives way to cloves, cinnamon, and the faintest hint of cardamom. And the finish? Some of the most pleasant, full-bodied heat I've had the pleasure to encounter. It lingers for a while, not as a tingle or a burn, but as an assertive, gentle flame.
How Do You Use It?
What does it work well with? Since it has spicy, warming, and cooling flavors, pretty much anything. You can use it just like black pepper, ground during cooking to impregnate its flavor or tableside to get an embellishment of spice. Since it tastes like so many things, you can use it to both enhance and contrast the main flavors of a dish. How you pair it and when you add it also impact its final taste.
You can emphasize its citrus flavors by cracking some into salad dressings. Its slight herbiness is enhanced by herbs like thyme (lemon thyme if you can get it), rosemary, and sage. Curries and rich sauces are the beneficiaries of its sweet warmth, as are gingerbreads and spice cakes. In all of these there's that peppery heat, but it's so much less punchy than black peppers (though no less flavorful) that it's rarely unwelcome.
"I can't think of a land critter that wouldn't benefit from its inclusion"
I can't think of a land critter that wouldn't benefit from its inclusion, be it in pure ground form, included in a sauce, or used in a spice rub. It's perfect on fish with lemon and adds intriguing flavors to shrimp and mussels. It does awesome things for roasted vegetables.
No matter what you use it on, I'd recommend a dual-application approach: Add some while cooking and just before serving to preserve its full range of flavor. Few recipes call for grains of paradise as it's still largely an unknown ingredient, but after tasting it's easy to get a sense for how to use it. And since it's quite forgiving, there's few risks to trying it out.
Is it more pricey than most spices? Perhaps. But in a world of uncomfortably expensive vinegars and oils, where you can pay three dollars for a handcrafted soda, it's an affordable luxury that can do culinary wonders. And it's far less expensive than you think. The grains aren't that dense, so even a few ounces buys you a lot more than an equal weight of another spice. If you use some in a pot of lentils instead of the steaks you were planning to grill, it more than pays for itself. Think of it as an investment in your culinary potential. That's how we justify spending money on what we want, right?
Where to Find Grains of Paradise
Purchase by weight to get the best deals. Here are some online retailers:
The Spice House: about $3 an ounce (locations in Chicago's Old Town and suburbs, as well as Milwaukee)
Kalustyan's: $7 an ounce (Murray Hill in New York City)
Frontier Natural Products Co-op: $7 for a 2 and 1/4 ounce grinder