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Grains of paradise, a Pantry Special (Recipe: tagine of lamb with apricots) {gluten-free}

Pantry Specials are great ingredients that find their way into my pantry from time to time, but not all the time.


On a recent search for new pantry ingredients with food blogging friend TW Barritt of Culinary Types, I acquired this tin of grains of paradise -- so unfamiliar to me that I had to look it up on my phone in the middle of the store.

Popular in West African cuisine and indigenous to that part of the world, grains of paradise (also called Melegueta or alligator pepper) got its name in a medieval marketing ploy: spice traders looking for a way to inflate the price claimed that the seeds grew only in Eden, and had to be collected as they floated down the rivers out of paradise. Spices were popular in those days, but true pepper was expensive; grains of paradise was a cheaper substitute (ironically, today pepper is inexpensive, while grains of paradise is not cheap at all). The spice was widely used in England until King George III, fearing it was being used in beer and wine production, banned it.

Grains of paradise tastes pungent and fruity, a bit like pepper crossed with cardamom. A frequent component of the spice blend ras el hanout, it works well with eggplant, potatoes, lamb and poultry, squash, tomatoes, and other root vegetables. Purchased in seed form, it must be ground or crushed right before use, and is best added towards the end of the cooking time.

Is this Pantry Special new to you?

Black pepper. 1 tsp grains of paradise equals 1/2 tsp black pepper. For a more rounded flavor substitute, mix black pepper with a bit of cardamom and ginger.

Where to buy online:
The Spice House (3 oz, $8.49)
Great American Spice Company (4.5 oz, $16.55)
Amazon.com (Mustapha's, 1.6 oz, $7.00)
Frontier Natural Products Coop (2.26 oz, $7.69)

How to use grains of paradise:
Cucumber and smoked salmon wraps
Samosas with grains of paradise
Molasses braised turnips
Fennel and sweet onion salad with tomato vinaigrette
Curried butternut squash soup
Panang curry beef
Yellow raspberry crisp
No-sweat pickled beets
Swedish crisp bread


Tagine of lamb with apricots

Sweet and fruity, this classic North African stew can also be made with beef. Recipe adapted from Tagine: Spicy Stews of Morocco, by Ghillie Basan, and other recipes. Serves 4; can be doubled.


2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp sliced raw almonds
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp grated or minced fresh ginger
A pinch of saffron threads
2 cinnamon sticks
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1-1/2 lb boned lamb, cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes
24 dried apricots
4 strips of orange peel
1 Tbsp agave nectar or honey (to taste)
1/2 tsp grains of paradise + 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, ground together coarsely in a mortar or spice grinder
Kosher salt, to taste


In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the almonds. Stir and cook until the almonds begin to brown. Add the onions, and sauté until they begin to color. Add the garlic, ginger, saffron, cinnamon sticks, and coriander. Stir to combine. Add the lamb, stir to coat with the seasonings, and sauté for 1-2 minutes, until the lamb is lightly browned.

Add 3-1/2 cups of water, or enough to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot, and cook for 1 hour.

When you set the pot to simmer, place the apricots in a bowl or glass measuring cup, and cover with very hot tap water. Leave them to soak for 1 hour while the lamb is cooking. At the end of the hour, drain the fruit and add to the lamb, along with the orange peel. Simmer for 20 minutes more.

Stir in the agave or honey, ground grains of paradise and pepper, and salt to taste. If there is a lot of liquid in the pot, leave uncovered, and simmer 15 minutes more until sauce is reduced and thick. If there's not enough liquid, add water or orange juice to keep the lamb from sticking until it's finished cooking. The lamb should be tender, and the sauce thick and glistening.

Serve hot, with couscous, rice, or chunks of bread to mop up the sauce.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Chicken with preserved lemon tagine
Chicken with prunes and almonds
Salmon tagine with chermoula
Lentils with spinach and preserved lemon
Butternut squash soup

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


i've never heard of this! now i will be on the hunt! the tajine looks delicious!

PS. thank you ;-)

That looks and sounds amazing! x

Fun seeing what you made with one of your new pantry finds. I love the sound of lamb with apricots too, looks delicious!

this is definitely a new pantry ingredient for me. And as I do like lamb I shall look for it. Ofcourse it is great that you provide a substitute too. :)

the first and only time I had heard of it or seen it used... was on an episode of Alton Brown that I think had to do with Lentils. Anyway I remember thinking at the time that I want to look into this mystery spice but of course forgot until now.... THANKS!
(ps I often google things on my phone in the store! gotta love technology!)

Lydia, completely new! I have never heard nor seen it before. It sounds great!

I just read the book "The Taste of Conquest" by Krondl, which had quite a bit of history of this and other peppers -- this one was especially important in the part about Portuguese spice trading. (I wrote a review at maefood.blogspot.com ). I haven't tasted the spice, though, at least not knowingly.

Grains of Paradise...marketing in Medieval times? Can you just imagine that conversation, "Hey, let's just tell them this stuff comes from Eden. It'll sell like wildfire!"

I have to admit, this is new to me and I wondered what you were pulling your iPhone out for in D&D. I'm a HUGE fan of pepper and can see the use for cardamom (and ginger) added at times. Thanks for bringing this spice to my attention.

Fascinating, Lydia. Thanks for the little lesson in this spice. I know I've seen it before, but can't rememeber if it want by the same name. It was in French, anyway..

Well, this just proves that religion, love, taxes and marketing are all as old as time! Those spice traders would be pleased to know that today, their marketing ploy is now highly successful at grabbing a premium price!

OK, the ingredient list alone transports me to Morocco. I'm on my way to the airport...fez in hand!

Never had/heard of it before, but it sounds like it would be a fun one to play with, that's for sure. The tagine sounds like a great showcase for it, especially with lamb.

I just got a new tagine so this might break it in!

You know, I had seen grains of paradise on the menu at Clio but never bothered to ask... I thought it was more like Quinoa. Thanks for doing the research and educating me! Looking forward to getting some (there's a great spice shop right around the corner from me) and experimenting...

I have some of these! I bought them in the city, but haven't really known what to do with them yet. (Sound like a pattern?)
Thanks for the review!

this sounds delicious. the grains of paradise are actually amazingly delicious. a simple plate with olive oil sprinkled with grains of pardise and gourmet salt, and soak a piece of crusty artisan bread into it, and dig in..... its out of this world. this spice beside its taste, actually has temendous health benefits. there is more on it at: grainsofparadise.com

I love new food finds!

I really like savoury dishes that use dried fruits like this.

Great photos! I have never made lamb before. I hope you get lots and lots of use out of your grains of paradise!

That photo was amazing!

Kalyn, it's always fun to experiment with new things. I don't think this one will become a permanent part of my pantry, but it's nice to have it from time to time.

Veron, how about a grains of paradise macaron?

Carol, thanks to my in-store research, I was able to have some ideas right away for how to use my new ingredients (stay tuned... I'm posting about the other one next week).

Mae, thanks -- I'll go over and read your book review.

Sandie, spoken like a true copywriter! I really want some ideas for how to use this in baking. Maybe substituting for some of the cardamom in cardamom bread?

TW, I have to admit I was stunned by how expensive this spice is. Is it worth it? Probably not, at least not to me. But it's lots of fun to have in the pantry for a while. Thanks again for taking me pantry shopping.

Noble Pig, this would be a great dish for seasoning your new tagine, too. Take some of the same spices, make a paste with garlic and olive oil, and paint the inside of the tagine lid with the paste. It will seep into your tagine and flavor it, like the flavors that accumulate in cast iron pans.

Julia, I would have been lost without my phone, too -- the instant research was great.

Kirsten, thanks for the link to more info.

Kevin, the combination of meats and dried fruits is so North African. I love it, too.

Lydia, I will add your recipe to all my others for Tangine. Oh! if you can try and find dried orange peels they are a fantastic addition to any lamb tangine.
I am hoping that you post a recipe for one of the chicken Tagine's. Usually they will have preserved lemons.
Tangine is of course the name of the cooking vessel as well as the dishes that are cooked with them. I got fascinated with Tangines because, well I am always fascinated with different types of food and living in Los Angeles it's always an adventure when ever you are presented with a food mystery. One of the only good things about living in LA is the accessibility to any food and any ingredient. It’s somewhere in the city – you just have to look.
What is funny is that I have one supplier for grains of paradise and the place is quite a drive away so recently I decided to go on the hunt for and additional supplier; found one three blocks away. Darn, I was really hoping for adventure

I read about them in Cooking for Mr. Latte but I've never seen them for sale. Now that I've read about them here I'm inclined to hunt for them. Your description of a pepper cardamom combination makes it sound so intriguing.

I have never made lamb, but always order it out. Seems like a perfect pairing w/apricots.

Kim, I too am in love with tagine cooking. There are several chicken tagine recipes posted here; you can use the search box up top, just below my photo, and type in "tagine" to find them. You're so lucky to have a good source of spices so close to home!

Julie, the first I'd ever heard of grains of paradise was in that book, too. I really think this spice would have some great applications in bread baking.

Olga, lamb and fruit (apricots, prunes, cranberries, cherries) is wonderful. Do try it!

Funny thing is I thought I heard of at The Perfect Pantry! Maybe on your year end list of to-be-sourced? We go some from a mail/net source. Put some in with mixed peppercorns in a grinder, sprinkled on a few things experimentally. Your ideas remind me of a cookie with black peppercorns -- this sounds like a fit (The Spice Cookbook, Day and Stuckey --with ginger, cinnamon and cloves; also pfeffernuesse).

Never heard of Grains of Paradise, but I can see that it was a clever marketer who figured out what to name this. Oh yes - count me in!

I love Sees, I think I'll leave my comment here. I was so happy to see this entry because I had just been to a spice shop that had grains of paradise and I wondered what it was and how to use.

The shop also had dried powders, tomato, red wine, coconut, etc. I need to search to see if you've ever discussed any of them.

Once again I am reminded that I didn't buy that beautiful tagine I had my eye on before we left the Vendee... Yes, I know one can make the food without the vessel... But I sooo wanted that..
Your spice was absolutely new to me. The problem with spices here is finding a translation for them, but North African cooking ingredients are fairly common.

;) I thought I'd seen this here, guess not. You always make me want to find this kind of thing. What a fun history of this.
And the tagine . . . I've been wanting to get another going on the stove.

This sounds delicious! I know what I will be making for my dinner tonight :)

Love spice house and frontier! If you need to buy grains of paradise in bulk, spice specialist also sells it by the pound and it works out to be about $3/oz.

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