Thursday, January 31, 2013

He who brings kola brings life

The Akan adinkra symbol on the left is called "bese saka," or "bag of kola nuts." Like a lucrative sack of such nuts, (in Ghana) it is a very positive symbol associated with affluence and abundance, as well as togetherness and unity.

Kola nuts have played an especially important role in Ghana and Nigeria. As one of Achebe's characters affirms in  Things Fall Apart, "He who brings kola brings life." While in the West we generally only think of "kola" as being part of the original formula for "Coca-Cola," the nuts have often been shared as part of a hospitality ritual in Western Africa. They are also favored by Muslims (such as my driver during one extended trip around Ghana during Ramadan) for their ability to quench thirst, stave off hunger, and increase alertness. For a history of the kola industry in Ghana, see Abaka's 2005 Kola is God's Gift.

Two of my students last semester were attracted to kola nuts. One of them because he found them woven throughout Chris Abani's novel Graceland (e.g., "This is the kola nut. The seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us," another because he was just curious. 

Fortunately, my generous fellow African food blogger and food photographer extraordinaire (also mentioned in my last posting because she also brought us alligator peppers) Ozoz arrived in New York a few days before our final class, which was an  "African cafe" buffet in my home featuring food we'd studied from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Ozoz included two types of kola nuts (red and white) in her "care package" to us. Thus our final class together we were able to begin with a symbolic "breaking of the kola nut." I found a link describing how to actually "break" it, but I had to ask her for more information about the ceremony. Since she mentioned that she plans at some point to blog about it, I'll simply note that she said "Nowhere in Nigeria is Kolanut more revered than by the Igbo tribe. They are best known for all the traditions around the kola." My students universally agreed about the bitterness of the kola nuts (they found both equally bitter), but our unsophisticated palates couldn't detect the secondary sweetness.

Incidentally, I would also like to thank Ozoz here for all her other gifts in that package:
  • In addition to the alligator pepper and kola nuts, she included  another, more recent copy of the classic Kudeti Book of Yoruba Cookery (one of the earliest African cookbooks I ever discovered)
  • several packets of banga soup spices (we used some to season our palmnut soup)
  • some containers of her preferred brand of curry powder (Lion, from the UK)
  • some suya spice (aka tankora or yagi powder/rub); essential to Nigerian suya (kebabs) or Ghanaian chichinga
  • some "belentientien," a kind of dried leaf used to season palmnut soup
  • several packets of "instant" pepper soup spices (containing: "Monodora Myristica, Tetraplura, Tetrapter, Parinars, Excelsa, Chrysobalanus, Orbicularis"), packaged in Okere-Warri, Delta State (and who says Africans aren't entrepreneurial?)
  • a large bar of Immit's Carnival milk chocolate
I hope I haven't made all the Nigerians away from home too homesick.
Truly, West Africans are generous and hospitable in many, many ways. Maybe the proverb should be "She who brings gifts from afar, brings life." Thank you, Ozoz.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Grains of Paradise or Alligator Pepper?

This past semester two of my students selected "grains of paradise" as a West African ingredient to research. One of the first things they announced in their presentation was that "grains of paradise,"  aframomum (or amomum) melequeta is also known as "alligator pepper," the dried seeds of the same plant. While all  "aframomums"  appear to belong to the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), and more specifically are types of cardamom, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion over the different types of "aframomums."

  My own search for clarity began years ago when I remembered reading  in H. O. Anthonio and M. Isoun's 1982 Nigerian Cookbook (Macmillan) about a spice called "atariko" that sounded like it might be melequeta pepper ("small seeds sold in, or removed from, an alligator pepper-like pod. Highly scented, but not as hot as alligator pepper. It is expensive so use only a few of the tiny seeds to flavor pepper soups, or banga soup. . ." (p. 17). [Incidentally, I notice that this material was appropriated verbatim in a 2008 posting on Nigerialand ( without any attribution to its source. Sigh.]

In the scientific literature the names "grains of paradise," "alligator pepper," and "aframomum melegueta" are often used interchangeably, especially by Nigerians. For example, 
  • Tolu Odugbemi's Outlines and Pictures of Medicinal Plants from Nigeria, published by the University of Lagos press in 2006, p. 74, where he lists the species name as "Aframomum melegueta, the family name as Zingiberaceae, the local (Nigerian) names as "ata-ire, atare, itaye," and the common names as "alligator pepper, grains of paradise," whose leaves and seeds are both eaten. However, he also lists 2 other Aframomum plants. Odugbemi does not use the name "grains of paradise", though he separately lists a plant as "Aframomum granum-paradisi," whose local name is oburo-wawa, common name "Afromum lillies," and whose roots are eaten rather than seeds. Finally, he lists another Aframomum plant (Aframomum sceptrum), known as "oburo-etu," or "oboro," or "bear berry," whose leaves and seeds are both eaten, too 
  •  Ndukwu and Ben-Nwadibia from the University of Port Harcourt, in a paper on "Ethnomedicinal Aspects of Plants in the Niger Delta," list names for Aframomum melegueta as "grains of paradise, Guinea grains, and alligator pepper," with local names: "Bini - ehin-edo; ehie ado; Igbo - Ose oji; Urhobo - erhie; Yoruba - oburo; ata; ata-ire." 
  • Colleagues Aiyeloja and Bello in a 2006 paper "Ethnobotanical potentials of common herbs in Nigeria: A Case Study of Enugu State" include the name aframonum (sic) melegueta with the simple "common name" of "alligator pepper," and further distinguish the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo names as "ataare," "ose-orji or okwa," and "chilla or citta," respectively. Are you confused yet?
2 Ghanaian sources I consulted have this to say: 
  • O. B. Dokosi, in Herbs of Ghana, Ghana Universities Press,1998, p. 471-477, lists 8 types of Aframomums, two of which are Aframomum melegueta (he also calls this type Guinea grains, but NOT alligator pepper) and Aframomum daniellii. He explains that except for Aframomum melegueta, the local generic genus name for Aframomum plants is sensam in Twi (He also gives details on numerous other indigenous names for some of the species). In a  detailed discussion of Aframomum (or Amomum) melegueta, he gives names in Twi ("wisa" or "fam wisa" or "ground wisa," to differentiate if from Piper guineese, called "sorowisa" or "sky wisa," that is obtained from "above ground".  
  • Aframomum melegueta is also called "wisapa" (real wisa).  Dokosi lists numerous other indigenous language names for it, but differentiates between 2 types of Aframomum melegueta: "adowa wisa," a type that grows wild and is usually used mainly for medicinal purposes, and "wisa-pa" or "apokuo" (Akim and Ashanti names meaning "proper wisa.") He gives details on both the culinary and medicinal properties of the plants.
  • In the Ghana Herbal Pharmacopoeia, published by Science and Technology Policy Research Institute [STEPRI], revised, 2007) has several pages devoted to "grains of paradise," (pp. 108-111). Here, however, they also list common names of Aframomum melegueta as "Guinea grains, alligator pepper, or melegueta pepper." (And also include the Twi, Fante, Ga-Adangbe, Nzema, Ewe, Dagbani, and Hausa names.)

 Anyhow, online at a Canadian Itsekiri heritage site I finally found Anthonio and M. Isoun's "atariko" listed as "AFRAMOMUM SPP". I went back to the spice entry for cardamom on the Celtnet site I alluded to at the beginning of this long, laborious post. There I found an explanation that says that alligator pepper, while a member of the Aframomum genus, is slightly different from Aframomum melegueta. It appears that there may be a slight difference among these--those known as "alligator peppers" are most likely from the aframomums danielli, citratum, or excapsum (though this last one is less popular).

In the picture at the top of this post, you see some allegedly "grains of paradise" I ordered from the Spice House in Chicago on the right with some "alligator peppers" graciously brought to me from Nigeria by my Nigerian colleague of the fabulous Kitchen Butterfly site on the left. I couldn't tell the difference in taste, nor appearance. I guess my bottom line is, for those of us outside of Africa, it doesn't make any difference. Use whatever you like, and call it whatever you like.

Any food scientists or botanists or culinary types who disagree, just let me know. By the way,  the students were able to find out easily that Alton Brown uses grains of paradise in his apple pie, but it was much harder for them to find authentic West African recipes using them because they didn't know the correct language and name to use when searching.
Aframomum danielli, Aframomum citratum or Aframomum exscapum

Read more at Celtnet:
Copyright © celtnet
Aframomum danielli, Aframomum citratum or Aframomum exscapum

Read more at Celtnet:
Copyright © celtnet