Cubeb pepper
Cooking History, Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 5: Pepper is more than just Piper nigrum

7 comments

In my last four blog posts, I have focused on the most common variety of pepper: Piper nigrum. But there is more to the world of pepper than just this one plant. So today, I want to introduce you to different varieties of pepper from all around the world ranging from grains of Selim to Cumeo pepper.

As a word of warning, the world of pepper is a huge one. The piper family alone includes six different pepper cultivars:

  • Piper nigrum (our regular peppercorns)
  • Piper longum (long pepper)
  • Kubeben pepper
  • Voatsiperifery pepper
  • Lolot pepper
  • Hoja Santa

Adding to that, there are nine more varieties of pepper not from the piper family which are commonly referred to as pepper but which are not a member of the piper family:

  • Grains of paradise
  • Water pepper
  • Rose pepper
  • Tasmanian pepper
  • Grains of Selim
  • Andaliman pepper
  • Timut pepper
  • Cumeo pepper
  • Sichuan pepper

And I am going to introduce you to all of them today starting with the members of the piper family.

The Piper family

Long pepper (Piper longum)

Long pepper
Long pepper is mainly grown in India, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Picture source: Wikipedia.

Long pepper was the first pepper variety available to Europeans. The Romans preferred it over the regular peppercorns. However, today it has somehow become seldom in Europe.

It was Alexander the Great who had initially brought this pepper to Europe. And until the 17th century, this pepper was the standard choice at any European table. Some historians claim that long pepper lost popularity in Europe with the discovery of chili peppers and allspice in America.

Dried chili peppers have a similar aroma to long pepper and were easier to acquire thanks to European colonialism. Yet it remains a great mystery how one of the most common spices in medieval Europe turned into an exotic rarity today.

I have already provided you with a taste test in my post about pepper from Indonesia. There I stated that I much prefer Kampot long pepper over Java long pepper. So, it’s time to give you my flavor impression of the magnificent Kampot long pepper.

Taste test: Kampot long pepper (Piper longum)

Kampot Long Pepper
Length of the pepper4 centimeters
Density of the pepper450 grams per Liter
Color of the pepperMedium dark-brown, reddish
Smell of the pepperThe pepper smells very peppery, warm, sweet, and fruity. It reminds me of German gingerbread. It’s almost exactly the same smell. A wonderful aromatic smell with slight eucalyptus notes.

Observed flavor attributes:
Warm
Pungent
Spicy
Fruity
Woody
Eucalyptus
Christmas
Taste of the pepperThe long pepper is spicier than the round Kampot peppercorns but it is also much sweeter and fruitier. The taste is very close to the German gingerbread which you can find on German Christmas markets. The taste is also a bit floral and woody, with a few minty/ eucalyptus notes.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Sweet
Fruity
Woody
Earthy
Minty
Eucalyptus

Kampot long pepper is a fantastic choice and I can only recommend it to anyone. If you have any long pepper in your cupboard, this should be it. The flavor is reminiscent of German Christmas cookies. Maybe it’s the nostalgia that makes me love this pepper so much.

Kubeben pepper (Piper cubeba)

Kubeben pepper is sometimes also called Indian pepper yet it is native to the Indonesian island Java. Kubeben peppercorns are harvested unripe, just like regular black peppercorns. They turn black during the drying process.

Piper cubeba
Kubeben pepper doesn’t necessarily have to be round. It can also look quite similar to long pepper. Picture Source: Wikipedia.

It were the Arab merchants who first introduced Kubeben pepper to Europe where it remained a common spice until the 17th century. Just as long pepper, Kubeben pepper is a rarity in Europe nowadays.

It always makes me perplexed to think that cooks in medieval Europe probably knew and used a much wider variety of spices and herbs than we do today in our globalized world with easy access to just about any ingredient.

The main culinary use in Europe for Kubeben pepper was to add it to seasoning sauces and gingerbread. The more exotic spices you put in your gingerbread, the better. At least that’s what medieval Germans thought who displayed their wealth by baking Christmas cookies with exotic seasonings.

Kubeben pepper tastes a little bitter with eucalyptus notes. Therefore, it is a great addition to just about any sauce for meat or vegetables. The variety I review in my taste test is from Java, Indonesia.

Taste test: Kubeben pepper (Piper cubeba)

Kubeben pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns4 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns415 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsMedium dark-brown, greyish
Smell of the peppercornsThe pepper smells minty, pine-like, earthy/ musty, and a bit citrusy. The earthy notes make the pepper smell a bit like the soil or dirt. Other than that, the mint, eucalyptus, and pine smell are very dominant yet the smell of the pepper doesn’t have many warm or sweet notes to it.

Observed flavor attributes:
Minty
Eucalyptus
Pine-like
Terpene
Earthy/ Musty
Woody
Citrusy
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper has a very minty and eucalyptus-like taste. It tastes very herby, slightly bitter, woody, and refreshing. Different from black pepper, this pepper isn’t very spicy at all. It’s only a very mild spice sensation on the tongue. Somehow, the pepper reminds me a little of toothpaste. It has a cooling effect in the mouth from the menthol with a very strong minty aftertaste. Kubeben pepper doesn’t taste earthy. It tastes very similar to peppermint rather than regular black pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Minty
Eucalyptus
Cooling
Citrusy
Herbal
Woody
Bitter
Minimal spiciness

I know that a lot of people are no big fans of mint. However, I am a huge fan of this herb. If you love mint and eucalyptus, then you will love this pepper. It is suitable for almost any dish where you would use mint.

I love Kubeben pepper paired with potato in a dish like Carinthian cheese noodles or with steamed kohlrabi. This pepper is also phenomenal in any Christmas cookie. It’s a shame it has become so hard to encounter here in Germany.

Voatsiperifery pepper (Piper borbonese)

Voatsiperifery pepper is a wild pepper cultivar grown on the island of Madagascar. Different from long and Kubeben pepper, Voatsiperifery pepper has never been a mainstream spice in European cuisine. It’s one of the more recent discoveries of European spice hunters and gourmet chefs.

Traditionally, the inhabitants of Madagascar used it to season barbecued meat. However, a lot of Western chefs prefer to use it in sweet dishes because of the unique fruity and citrusy taste. But be warned, Voatsiperifery pepper also has a distinct bitterness to it which is probably why it is no common spice in Europe.

Taste test: Voatsiperifery pepper (Piper borbonese)

Voatsiperifery pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns2 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns540 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornslight to dark brown
Smell of the peppercornsA very earthy and grassy smell that reminds me of wet soil. The pepper has a light citrusy note but also reminds me a bit of urine. From the smell alone, this pepper is not too promising.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Grassy
Urine
Citrusy
Taste of the peppercornsA very fruity and slightly sweet taste at the beginning. The fruity sensation is somehow similar to wild forest berries. Over time, the bitterness of the pepper develops on the tongue accompanied by woody undertones. A very unique flavor sensation. The citrusy aftertaste reminds me a bit of lime. The pepper is only mildly spicy.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fruity
Sweet
Woody
Floral
Bitter
Citrusy
Subtle spiciness

Lolot pepper (Piper sarmentosum/ lolot) and hoja santa (Piper auritum)

Lolot pepper and hoja santa are leaves and no peppercorns in the traditional way. Lolot pepper is native to Southeast Asia and often used in Laotian, Cambodian, Thay, Malay, and Vietnamese cuisine. The taste of Lolot pepper is a little peppery and much milder than that of betel leaves and it is mainly used as a wrap for barbecued meat and sometimes also in salads.

lolot leaves
Lolot pepper is an aromatic leaf and no peppercorn. Picture Source. Wikipedia.

The fascinating thing is though, that the practice of wrapping barbecued meat in aromatic leaves can be traced back to ancient Europe and the Middle East. People in the Mediterranean areas were the first ones to use grapevines to wrap meat and rice.

This Persians then introduced this practice to India from where it traveled further to Southeast Asia. Of course, the climate in Southeast Asia is not suitable to grow grapevines which is why the natives used Lolot leaves as a substitute.

As you might know from my blog, I prefer fresh and local food over imported produce. So I won’t bother sourcing lolot leaves in Germany. Even if you can find them, why would you want to eat sad little wilted or frozen leaves from the other end of the world if you have access to much more aromatic and fresher produce? If you live close to the Mediterranean, just use the European original: grapevine.

Stuffed grapevine leaves
Stuffed grapevine leaves are a traditional food of the Mediterranean.

The Mexican pepper leaf hoja santa is a similar case for me. I won’t buy wilted or frozen leaves from Mexico here in Germany. However, if you’re from the US, these pepper leaves might be your best choice to wrap barbecued meat. The leaves themselves don’t taste like pepper but have a pleasant anise-like aroma with eucalyptus notes.

If you like to cook Mexican food, then it is great if you have access to fresh hoja santa leaves. They are used extensively in Mexican cuisine to wrap meats and also as a seasoning for sauces and soups.

Friends of the piper family

The Zanthoxylum family

The Zanthoxylum family includes four types of pepper:

  • Andaliman pepper (Z. acanathopodium)
  • Timut pepper (Z. armatum)
  • Cumeo pepper (Z. lauraceae)
  • Sichuan pepper (Z. piperitum)

Zanthoxylum refers to the color of the wood of the plant: yellow. Some of the Zanthoxylum cultivars are even used as a yellow dyestuff yet the berries from the Zanthoxylum family members listed above are known for their citrusy and numbing taste.

zanthoxylum wood
Zanthoxylum wood has a characteristic yellow color and can be used as a dyestuff. Picture source: Wikipedia.

The probably most well-known cultivar is Sichuan pepper from China. In Germany, it is also known as Japanese pepper or mountain pepper. The Japanese themselves refer to Sichuan pepper as sanshō pepper. Of course, there is a flavor difference between pepper that was grown in Japan or China. Yet both plants are of the same genus. Some spice retailers make it seem like there is a huge difference between Japanese and Sichuan pepper but it is the same plant.

Ironically, Sichuan pepper is my least favorite variety of Zanthoxylum. By far the best cultivar you can get is Andaliman pepper, the Indonesian citrus pepper. The Andaliman pepper tastes much more intense with a strong flavor that is reminiscent of lemongrass. It is much less earthy and bitter than Sichuan pepper with an astonishing fragrance that remains unmatched. The only downside is though that Andaliman pepper is much more expensive than Sichuan pepper.

Sichuan pepper on the vine
Japanese pepper (sanshō) on the vine. Picture source: Wikipedia.

Timut and Cumeo pepper both come from the same region: Nepal. While Timut pepper is very similar in taste to Sichuan pepper, Cumeo pepper has its own distinct taste. Cumeo pepper doesn’t taste like lemongrass. It tastes like grapefruit which is why it is often also referred to as grapefruit pepper. Also, Cumeo pepper doesn’t have a numbing effect on the tongue that is comparable to the one of Sichuan or Andaliman pepper.

While I wouldn’t use Sichuan or Timut pepper in desserts, Andaliman and Cumeo pepper harmonize exceptionally well with sweet dishes. Other than that, East Asian cultures like to use Andaliman and Cumeo pepper to season chicken and fish dishes as well as to flavor sauces and soups. In China, Sichuan pepper is part of the traditional five-spice seasoning mixture and often added to stir-fried meat, fish, barbecued meat, and also sauces.

Taste test: Sichuan pepper (Z. piperitum)

Sichuan peppercorns
Diameter of the peppercorns5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns315 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsmedium-dark brown, reddish/ purple-ish
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell is fruity, citrusy, intense. It’s a very pungent and refreshing smell, very different from Andaliman pepper, but also slightly lemony. The Sichuan pepper smells woodier, more tart than Andaliman pepper. Some fecal off-flavors are noticeable.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fruity
Citrusy
Pungent
Herbal
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper tastes very woody and earthy, tobacco-like. It has citrusy notes although they are much weaker than in Andalamian pepper. The numbing effect on the tongue is strong and refreshing. Once the numbing effect becomes more pronounced, the pepper reminds me of lemon and starts to taste sweet.

Observed flavor attributes:
Woody
Tobacco
Earthy
Citrusy
Lemony
Fruity
Numbing
Slightly bitter

Taste test: Andaliman pepper (Z. acanathopodium)

Andaliman pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns3 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns200 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsmedium brown to dark brown/ black color
Smell of the peppercornsThe pepper smells very refreshing, like lemons. It’s a very fragrant and intense smell with woody/ earthy undertones.

Observed flavor attributes:
Lemon
Citrusy
Woody
Earthy
Taste of the peppercornsThe taste is very lemony and refreshing. The citrus aroma is phenomenal. The pepper has a numbing effect on the tongue, just like Sichuan pepper. The aftertaste is sweet. Andaliman pepper tastes like fresh and sweet lemons from Italy. It’s a wonderful aroma and fragrance that reminds me of limoncello or lemon tea.

Observed flavor attributes:
Lemon
Citrus
Numbing
Sweet
Slightly bitter

Taste test: Cumeo pepper (Z. lauraceae)

Cumeo pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns3-4 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns375 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsmedium-dark brown, yellow-ish
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell of Cumeo pepper is very aromatic and reminds me of grapefruit. Besides that, the pine and eucalyptus aroma are very pronounced. A very refreshing smell that clears the nose. The smell also includes a few chocolatey undertones.

Observed flavor attributes:
Grapefruit
Citrusy
Pine-like
Eucalyptus
Fruity
Sweet
Chocolate
Taste of the peppercornsA very delicious sweet and citrusy taste. No spiciness but the pepper reminds me very much of grapefruit. Incredible fruitiness and aroma. The taste is a mixture of grapefruit and eucalyptus with woody undertones.

Observed flavor attributes:
Grapefruit
Sweet
Citrusy
Fruity
Eucalyptus
Woody

Pepper cultivars from Africa: Grains of paradise and Grains of Selim

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) and grains of Selim (Xylopia aethiopica) were well known among people living in medieval Europe. Both spices have little to do with regular peppercorns, however, during medieval times, they were much cheaper than the peppercorns imported from India.

grains of paradise
Grains of paradise were a popular seasoning in medieval Europe. Picture Source: Wikipedia.

As soon as Indian peppercorns became largely available in Europe through the East Asian colonies, grains of paradise and grains of Selim lost their popularity in Europe. Nowadays, it’s incredibly seldom to encounter them in Germany.

Grains of paradise are spicy and share some flavor similarities with regular peppercorns. In Germany, they are used in some gingerbread formulations, as well as to season sausages and beers. In Africa, the grains of paradise are often ground and added to stews.

If you’re from Europe, you might not be familiar with the name grains of Selim. That is because the name grains of Selim is a more recent invention of the anglophone world. In Germany, this pepper is still called “Mohrenpfeffer” or “Negerpfeffer” (moor or negro pepper). It was already well known and used extensively in medieval Europe as a cheap substitute for Indian pepper.

Grains of Selim taste similar to nutmeg, however they are also quite bitter. The bitterness is probably the reason why Mohrenpfeffer is not an essential part of German cuisine anymore. We Germans love the nutmeg flavor, but we don’t seem to enjoy the bitterness of Mohrenpfeffer.

Taste test: Grains of Selim/ Mohrenpfeffer (Xylopia aethiopica)

grains of selim, mohrenpfeffer
Length of the pepper3-5 millimeters
Density of the pepper365 grams per Liter
Color of the peppermedium-dark brown, reddish
Smell of the pepperA very warm and aromatic pepper smell. A very tempting aroma with woody and earthy notes.

Observed flavor attributes:
Warm and Aromatic
Sweet
Woody
Earthy
Taste of the pepperThe grains of Selim taste very woody. They have a strong nutmeg and hazelnut aroma. Overall, a very unique taste that has nothing to do with regular peppercorns. The aftertaste is very bitter with a light spiciness.

Observed flavor attributes:
Woody
Nutmeg
Hazelnut
Bitter
Slightly spicy

Tasmanian pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata)

The Tasmanian pepper berry is native to Tasmania, an island south of Australia. The British colonialists developed a taste for it and used it as a substitute for Indian peppercorns. Tasmanian pepper was also used as a herbal remedy by British colonialists to treat stomachache and scurvy.

But somehow the British didn’t popularize Tasmanian pepper back in Europe so that it remains a rarity until today. In Japan, the Tasmanian pepper berries are sometimes used to flavor wasabi but I can’t really think of any popular European dish that includes Tasmanian peppercorns. It’s a niche product that is nevertheless super delicious.

Tasmanian pepper doesn’t have the bitterness of grains of Selim so it’s a bit of a mystery to me why these peppercorns are not more popular in Europe. They are fruity with minty and eucalyptus notes but also, as a word of warning, very spicy.

Taste test: Tasmanian pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata)

Tasmanian pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns400 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsblack, greyish
Smell of the peppercornsThe peppercorns smell fruity, sweet, warm, and a little woody. Overall, a very mild but aromatic smell.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fruity
Warm
Sweet
Minty
Woody
Taste of the peppercornsTasmanian peppercorns are intensely spicy. Before the spice sets in, the pepper tastes sweet, fruity, and reminds me a bit fo camphor, eucalyptus, and horseradish/ radish.

Observed flavor attributes:
Sweet
Intensely spicy
Fruity
Camphor
Eucalyptus

Water pepper (Persicaria hidropiper)

Water pepper is a weed that has completely disappeared from European cuisine. It has a very pungent taste that bears some similarity to regular peppercorns, however, the leaves are also incredibly bitter. Yet people were willing to eat water pepper despite its bitterness in times of scarcity.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/69/Persicaria_hydropiper_plant1_NC_%2816573199533%29.jpg/1024px-Persicaria_hydropiper_plant1_NC_%2816573199533%29.jpg
Water pepper is native to Europe. Picture Source: Wikipedia.

During both world wars, water pepper was cultivated in Europe and eaten as a substitute for regular peppercorns. And while we Europeans don’t eat it anymore, it is still eaten in East Asia. Especially in Japanese cuisine, the leaves and seeds of the water pepper plant are commonly used as a garnishment for fish dishes. There is even a Japanese seasoning sauce made from chopped water pepper leaves that have been soaked in vinegar.

In China, it is not very common to eat water pepper, yet it is still used as traditional medicine. In Europe, water pepper was an important seasoning since the bronze age. So long before black pepper reached Europe, people had been consuming the leaves and seeds of the water pepper plant as a spice. Because the plant is native to Europe, you will be able to find it close to lakes and rivers all over the European mainland. But be warned, it is indeed very bitter and there is a good reason that isn’t beloved as a spice anymore.

In North America, water pepper has never been used extensively as a spice but it grows there as well in temperate climates. So maybe you find some on your next hiking trip if you live there. Water pepper is a weed that grows in abundance. So it shouldn’t be too tough to find if you know the places where to look for it.

Rose pepper (Schinus molle, Schinus terebinthifolia)

Pink peppercorn cultivars are native to Peru and Brazil. They are not related to the Piper family as they are members of the cashew family. So people with a tree nut allergy might experience an allergic reaction from them.

Peppercorn mixture with pink peppercorns
Pink peppercorns are commonly added to pepper mixtures to make them more colorful.

The main reason that rose pepper is so popular is because of its color. Almost no one in Europe buys or consumes pink peppercorns by themselves. Instead, they are a common filler ingredient in peppercorn mixes to complement the black and white peppercorns.

Rose pepper doesn’t taste spicy like real peppercorns, however, it tastes woody and a little sweet. Overall, the flavor isn’t too spectacular. Yet it was a common pepper substitute in Germany until after World War II. Pink peppercorns haven’t disappeared from German cuisine but the reason for adding them to food nowadays is their vibrant pink color and not their flavor.

What’s next?

I know that today’s post includes a lot of information for one single post. Yet I still want to introduce you to a few more types of gourmet pepper. That will be the next part of the series. Until then, I hope you learned something new and exciting today. The world of pepper is a huge one with many things to explore and discover!

7 Comments

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for this informative post. 🙂

    • Thank you 🙂! I’m glad you enjoy the post. There are quite a lot of pepper varieties to discover. It’s always hard for me to pick which one to cook with now that I have all of them in my cupboard😆.

  2. lovely post! I love pepper & am always grateful to learn more about it 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.