Botanical Name: Aframomum melegueta K. Schum
Common Names: Guinea pepper, Melegueta pepper, Alligator pepper, Guinea grains and Grains of Paradise
A renewed interest in natural products worldwide has been observed over the last two decades. This resurgence is a result of a number of factors coming together, like the consumer’s belief that natural products are superior, concerns over ever-increasing healthcare costs, the consumer’s dissatisfaction with conventional medicines owing to growing body resistance towards them, ageing baby boomers and changes in patenting laws allowing liberal advertising. One such plant with sufficient medical and economic potential is Aframomum melegueta or Guinea pepper.
At one time, Guinea pepper, like Negro pepper, was used as a substitute for black pepper in Europe, especially in Northern France. Subsequently, there was a gradual decline in the use of this spice in cuisines, though it has continued to be used as a flavouring agent for sausages and beer. Today, it remains largely unknown outside of Africa except as a flavouring agent with restricted use.
Habitat, Description and Use
Aframomum melegueta is a perennial herb commonly found in tropical regions, particularly in West Africa. The plant, which produces a spicy edible fruit, is found growing in profusion in the swampy habitats along the West African coast. This plant is a member of the family Zingiberaceae, the ginger family, the members of which are tropical and sub-tropical fruits.
The plant has a somewhat palm-like appearance and forms dense clumps that grow to a height of 1.2m to 1.5m. The leaves are dark green, smooth and divided, and are around 23cm to 25cm long. Its trumpet shaped, purple flowers develop into pods measuring 5cm to 7cm, and contain many small, reddish brown seeds.
There are two types of Guinea pepper fruits. They resemble the spice cardamom in appearance and pungency. The commercial variety is perhaps even closer in appearance and scent. The true Guinea pepper fruit tends to be less pungent than cardamom once cooked or heated. The seeds are approximately oval, hard and shining. The aromatic spice can be distinguished by its hot peppery taste. Traditionally imported via caravan routes through the Sahara desert, the grains are commonly used in North and West African cuisines.
The seeds of Guinea pepper are used in the treatment of measles and leprosy. Taken to reduce excessive lactation and post-partum haemorrages, it is also used as a purgative, anthelmenthic and haemostatic agent. Studies have shown the fruits and seeds to have anti-microbial and anti-fungal activities. The fruit, apparently, also has aphrodisiac properties; it is also believed to be an anti-sickling plant with various chemical components present in the seeds, most especially for sickle cell disease, it is a promising remedy for the 'S' hemoglobin and could reverse the sickle shaped blood in the vessels as far as 75%-90% for the blood to have a free passage into the vessels.
The results of the chemical analysis of the fruit or the seeds are not detailed. What is known, though, is that the seeds owe their pungent, peppery taste to aromatic kelones like (6)-paradole. Essential oils, found only in traces, are structurally similar to those found in cardamom.
References and Useful Websites
- The Herb Book, John Lust, 1984, Bantam Books, New York, USA.
- Cupboard love, A dictionary of culinary curiosities, Mark Norton 2004, Insomniac Press, Toronto, Canada.