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Stumbling upon mentions of Grains of Paradise, I got curious and ordered some. But what I got hardly does anything.

Sampling the grains straight there is prominent heat, maybe one quarter as strong as black pepper, also clear floral notes and some woodiness. Yet after using them hot or cold, raw or toasted, nothing but bitterness seems to remain in the product, which quickly gets unpleasant with liberal amounts.

I also read around, and a single article among several did allow that you need to use a bit more. But if this is the stuff they had before the sea route to india, saving money over pepper seems unlikely. Admittedly the offering was labeled "trial price", but so were the green peppercorns I ordered at the same time and those are fine -- at least I wasn't scammed.

So either the medievals used Guinea pepper to have some spice without expecting it to be like pepper, or I got a second-rate batch. How strong and how aromatic is it supposed to be?

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The Wikipedia page for Aframomum melegueta reads like during Medieval times it was mostly used it in flavourings for alcoholic drinks - the ethanol should extract the aromatics quite well, which accounts for the flavouring.

The Spruce Eats, which usually is a reliable source, has this to say about using the spice in cooking (emphasis mine):

You can use it whole as an aromatic to be removed and discarded before serving, similar to using other whole spices like cardamom or cloves.

This means you don't eat the spice more or less whole itself, just use it for flavouring, then discard. Though they then go on to say:

For a stronger flavor, grind the seeds either by using a pepper mill or spice grinder, or manually with a mortar and pestle until pulverized. Use grains of paradise to substitute half the black pepper in your cacio e pepe for a unique take on this classic pasta dish. Try the ground spice as a finisher, like black pepper, to add nuance and complexity to a wide range of dishes.

Smaller ground chunks will be less bitter overall as they won't linger in the mouth. I also think, from the mention of cacio e pepe, they are implying a short cook rather than a longer one, similar to how the flavour (but not heat) of black pepper disappears when cooked extensively. They also note later in the article that it has a slow, more subtle heat compared to black pepper, and that it has:

... a complex flavor: woody, peppery, herby, with a warm subtle heat.

So it seems yours is probably fine, just not what you expected and shouldn't be compared directly to black or green pepper (both are the same seed; different stages of ripeness), though uses are similar.

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  • I wasn't expecting a drop-in replacement for pepper, and maybe I did cook it too long. But even ground onto bread and cream cheese the bitterness is more prominent than the heat. Is that your experience too?
    – ariola
    Sep 25, 2023 at 9:57

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