The West African spice known as grains of paradise can be used to provide dishes with a pepper-like spark along with complex notes of cardamom and ginger. A common ingredient in Moroccan ras el hanout blends, grains of paradise is a valuable flavoring whether you are making beer or attempting to make authentic-tasting Nigerian dishes. You can get grains of paradise from various online sources, but the spice tends to be pricey. If it is too much for your budget or if you need some quick, consider one of the many grains of paradise substitutes.
Your best bet: Black peppercorns
One of the best-known historical uses of grains of paradise is as a substitute for black pepper during the 14th and 15th centuries. It was considered an effective alternative due to similarities in the flavor, including the fact that grains of paradise do deliver a peppery heat. In addition, black peppercorns and grains of paradise are very similar in appearance and so can provide similar aesthetic benefits. Black peppercorns will also work with any other spices that typically show up in recipes requiring grains of paradise.
Note that black peppercorns bring a little more heat to a dish when compared with grains of paradise. This means that you may want to start out with less black pepper and work your way up by adding a little at a time until you achieve the desired spice level.
A decent second choice: Cardamom
Cardamom comes from a bush that originates in India and is a member of the ginger family just like grains of paradise. Not only is cardamom a relative of grains of paradise, but their flavors also have certain strong similarities. A staple of curry powder blends, cardamom seeds are pungent and sweet. Both spices may also be used as whole seeds or ground.
Cardamom pairs well with most herbs and spices and should work in all recipes that call for grains of paradise. Because cardamom does not add much heat to dishes, consider combining your cardamom with a little black pepper if you need the peppery flavor.
Note that you should add cardamom earlier in the cooking process. Grains of paradise are often added towards the end of cooking time to preserve its flavor as it does not handle heat well.
In a pinch: Sansho Powder
Sansho powder is made from the leaves and seed pods of the prickly ash tree. It is a popular flavoring ingredient in Japanese sushi, soups, and stir-fried dishes. It is one of the spices in shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice blend, and is included in some versions of Chinese five-spice powder. You can grind it and sprinkle it over cooked food as a finishing spice, just like grains of paradise.
Also like grains of paradise, it provides a peppery bite accompanied by a citrus tang. When using sansho powder as a grains of paradise substitute, use the same amount that your recipe requires.
Pink peppercorns are effective substitutes for grains of paradise and may be a little easier to find. These pink berries offer a peppery bite accompanied by a fruity sweetness. The combination of black peppercorns and ginger is also considered a good approximation of the grains of paradise flavor. Use both of these substitutes exactly as you would use grains of paradise.