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What are grains of Selim? Everything you need to know about this versatile spice

Move over, black pepper: This spice is here to add robust flavor to stews, sauces, rubs and drinks.
Grains of Selim
Grains of Selim are also known as Selim pepper, uda, Ethiopian pepper, Guinea pepper and Kani pepper.Courtesy Matt Russell

Grains of Selim are also known as "Negro pepper," a name I am not so sure how I feel about. Luckily, there is a plethora of aliases to choose from for this cousin of black pepper: Selim pepper, uda, Ethiopian pepper, Guinea pepper, Kani pepper, just to name a few. The fruit is most commonly known as grains of Selim in Ghana, but within Ghana, the Akan call it "hwentia" or "hwentea," the Ewes call it "etso" and the Ga call it "so." Grains of Selim, scientifically known as Xylopia aethiopica, are seeds of an evergreen tree that grow in tropical parts of West and East Africa.

I’ll bet you’ve got a handle on your black, white, pink, green and tropical peppercorns, and maybe even your Sichuan, grains of paradise and cubeb, but you ain't seen a thing until you crack open a jar of grains of Selim. That melodic odor transfixes your senses, slapping you about the face like a bass cello with mad notes that scale from musky to eucalyptus.

What do grains of Selim taste like?

This spice is woody — and I don't mean the generic "woody" — I mean deliberate, smoky, lavender-scented, bamboo, charcoal barbecue woody. Every time I open my jar of grains of Selim, the smell transports me to a summer barbecue hosted by "Vogue" where a pit fire has been ignited by potpourri as its froufrou kindling. (Did I write that out loud? Private fantasy.) Selim is smoky, musky, woody and yet also mentholated and floral: It’s quite unlike anything you would have used before. If I'm being frank, there is no substitute for it, but if you must find one, black cardamom is as close as you'll get.

The fruit grows in small capsules in dense clusters. They look like small, thin, brown edamame pods. The pod contains about five to eight seeds and is often confused as the part of the fruit that offers this intense smoky and floral scent, when really it’s the hull of the seed pod that holds its magical aromas.

Sobolo (Sorrel Juice)

The hull provides the bulk of flavor, so typically, when cooking with this spice, both the pods and seeds will be crushed to yield the best flavor. When crushed or ground, grains of Selim work as the perfect replacement for or addition to black pepper (once you picked out the fibrous remnants of the hull). If you break the pod open, the seeds have a bitter flavor, which is actually very different to from that of the pod, emitting a musky and sweet aroma. Ground together, they create an aroma of sticky-sweetness reminiscent of honeysuckle, nutmeg and cloves with underlying hints of licorice, ginger, smoke, lavender and eucalyptus. And when cooked, they lend a complex, peppery and robust flavor with very little effort.

How do you cook with grains of Selim?

In cooking, this spice is typically used to add a peppery and robust flavor to stews — for example, in my Nkatsenkwan (Groundnut Stew with Lamb) — as well as sauces and rubs. This can be done by crushing, grinding or utilizing the entire spice pod. In western parts of Africa, grains of Selim show up in pepper stews, various decoctions such as tea, and even in a Senegalese coffee drink called café Touba. For preparation, I recommend toasting grains of Selim before cooking or infusing with it to open up the essential oils and aromas.

To use them in drinks, use a mortar and pestle to grind up these delicious pods, steep them in water, add a natural sweetener like agave syrup or honey for a soothingly fragrant tea; or simply snap the pods and add to hot water along with dried ginger and cloves to make a simple preparation of Guinea Pepper and Ginger Tea. I also like to use them in Sobolo, a hibiscus drink infused with herbs and spices.

Guinea Pepper and Ginger Tea

Aside from their use in soups, stews, sauces and drinks, the pods are also smoked, crushed and used as a meat or fish rub. I use it most commonly for making shito, a smoked crayfish hot pepper sauce that is a staple in many Ghanaian homes.

For another unique way to cook with this spice, try my Spinach and Agushi Curry recipe. In this recipe, the spice is crushed to help flavor the otherwise bitter agushi.

Spinach and Agushi Curry

To preserve the pungent flavor of this spice, be sure to store it in an air-tight container. Also, keep it away from other strong-scented spices because these pods can easily absorb flavors.

And, as always, when purchasing this spice, remember to support Black-owned businesses.