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


Ozoz said...

Thank you so much Fran. For months I've been confused myself if grains of paradise and alligator pepper are the same.

Having both in my possession, I can say they are.

Interestingly, I have the atariko pod! My sister in law in New York had some...and wasn't using them so she let me bring a couple back to Nigeria! I'll send you a photo. True, the pods are like the alligator pepper ones, but only in shape. They have smoother bark, and are an orangey-tan colour, as opposed to the dark brown, bumpy alligator pepper pods. The seeds too are much different - black, shiny, slightly oval.

The key issue with resolving the botanical names for it is the confusion brought in by the ethnic names.

But....I hope that I will be able to resolve some of it in the coming weeks. I have this post of the very spice that I've been writing for months. Sigh.

Amanda Hesser, formerly food editor of the New York Times, now co-founder uses it like black pepper,

Fran said...

Thank you, sister. I'll be very excited to see an example of atariko.

LohiO said...

Fran, I have been reading your blog for years and I just had to comment today. Your knowledge of African cuisine is amazing and I can only hope my interest and passion can make me know a little of what you know. Keep up the amazing work and I will keep learning from you. Thank you!

Fran said...

I cannot tell you how much it means to me to know that others are finding this site helpful. Thank you for the kind words.

Ozoz said...

Dear Fran, here are a few links to photos of Atariko, which we commonly use in peppersoup and in palm nit (banga) soup, and The light brown pod is smoother, lighter-coloured and slightly smaller than that of the grains of paradise, and the seeds are longer, darker, shinier and more fragrant than the grains of paradise.alligator pepper

Ozoz said...

In Nigeria, we make a wonderful peanut butter with the alligator pepper, hot dried red chilies and calabash nutmeg (mondoro myrstica).The peanuts are blitzed then the spices (ground) are added till a smooth paste is formed. This is eaten with out-of-hand garden eggs. Delicious!!

Unknown said...

great post - loved getting all this info. I discovered this spice for the first time just a few months ago as "Grains of Paradise" at a new spice shop in D.C. Quickly found that they are the perfect tool to jazz up aubergines or peanut sauces... in fact, I'm gonna get off line and go shopping right now!! I've got friends to feed.