Ancient Spice: What is Long Pepper? | History Hit

Ancient Spice: What is Long Pepper?

Shannon Callahan

22 Feb 2022
The long pepper.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Most people have black pepper as a staple in their kitchens. Partnered with salt, it is the foundation of countless dishes across breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, there was a time when this spice was not the most popular.

Its more complex cousin, the long pepper, was imported from India to Europe for 1,000 years. It lost favour in Europe to a spice introduced from South America, the chilli pepper. However, the long pepper is still used in India and is a popular addition to many dishes today.

Here are 5 facts about long pepper, the ancient spice. 

1. The long pepper is a close relative of black pepper

The long pepper is a close relative of black pepper, though there are several notable differences. First, it is shaped differently; coming from a slender plant, it has a conical shape with clusters of peppercorns. Typically, the peppercorns are sun-dried and then used whole or crushed.

Secondly, this pepper has a more complex flavour profile than black pepper, with a lingering bite that is classified as hotter than black pepper. There are two varieties of the long pepper, grown mainly in India and on the Indonesian island of Java, and the biggest difference between the two is found in the colour of the peppercorns. Otherwise, there is not much difference in flavour or appearance. 

2. Traditionally, the long pepper was used for medicinal purposes

The long pepper was used medicinally in India long before becoming a culinary ingredient. It plays an important role in the Indian medicine system of Ayurveda, a holistic health practice that dates back millennia. Typically, the long pepper is used to aid with sleep, respiratory infections and digestive issues.

Ayurvedic medicine. Indian Watercolour: Man of the Medical caste, masseuse.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Uses for long pepper were even outlined in the Kama Sutra which dates to 400-300 BC. In this text, it is recommended to mix long pepper with black pepper, Datura (a poisonous plant) and honey and to then apply the mixture topically for increased sexual performance. In modern times, it has been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties. 

3. The long pepper reached Greece in the 6th century BC

The long pepper reached Greece via land trade routes in the 6th or 5th century BC. It was first used as a medicine, with Hippocrates documenting its medicinal properties. However, by Roman times it had become a prominent spice used for cooking and cost twice as much as black pepper, though the two were often confused.

Pliny the Elder did not appear to be a fan of either pepper and could not tell the difference, as he lamented, “We only want it for its bite, and we will go to India to get it!”

4. The long pepper maintained its popularity throughout the middle ages

After the fall of Rome, the long pepper continued to be a popular spice used in cooking until the 16th century. It was detailed in medieval cookbooks for making drinks like mead and ale, as well as several spiced wines or hippocras.

Hippocras differs slightly from mulled wine of today, though it was made from wine mixed with sugar and spices. At the same time in India, the long pepper maintained its popularity in medicine and was introduced into cuisine. 

5. Changes in trade caused the decline of long pepper across Europe

In the 1400s and 1500s, new ways of trading lessened the demand for long pepper across Europe. Long pepper arrived by land, while black pepper typically arrived by sea. In addition, more sea routes opened up, meaning more black pepper could be imported more cheaply, and quickly overtook the long pepper in popularity.

Different types of chilli peppers and other types of pepper grew in popularity.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The long pepper further declined in popularity in the Western culinary world after the introduction of the chilli pepper from South America in the 1400s. Though the chilli pepper is similar in shape and taste, it could be grown more easily in a variety of climates, and it would only take 50 years for it to be grown across Africa, India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Balkans and Europe. By the 1600s, the long pepper had lost favour in Europe.

Portuguese traders introduced chilli peppers to India in the 15th century, and it is used in Indian cuisine today. Though the long pepper is less likely to be found today in Western cuisine, it is still utilised in many Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian and some North African dishes.

However, modern-day technology and trade capabilities mean this ancient spice is even making a comeback, as its complex flavour profile is desirable, and the spice can be found in specialty shops online and in stores around the world.

Shannon Callahan