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Spice Hunting: Long Pepper
We're fortunate to live in a time with more readily available spices than ever before. Imperially-controlled trade routes have been toppled; oceans can be crossed in an afternoon. But a number of flavors have been lost in the transition to a free spice trade. Whether they were discarded by economics, politics, or culinary politics, spices once popular in sophisticated kitchens around the world have not made their name in the modern day.
Long pepper is one of them, and its general absence from the modern culinary world is something of a culinary injustice we all owe to ourselves to right.
Like grains of paradise, long pepper was freely used alongside (and often confused with) common black pepper in kitchens from ancient Rome to Renaissance Europe. But the arrival of chiles from the New World and the rising popularity of black pepper shoved long pepper out of the culinary spotlight.
Its flavor is much more complex than black pepper, reminiscent of spice blends like garam masala more than a single spice. It possesses black pepper's heat and musk, but in a less harsh, more nuanced way, tempered by sweet notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Its finish lingers on the tongue with a tobacco-like coolness; where black pepper stings, long pepper balms.
There are actually two commercially grown species of long pepper: piper longum, from India, and the cheaper and wider-spread piper retrofactum, from Indonesia (the island of Java, specifically). Their flavors are similar enough as to be interchangeable, but they're worth mentioning for inspiration about cuisines the spice takes well to. South Indian cooks use long pepper in lentil stews and pickles, and its sweet heat takes well to Southeast Asian-style roasted meats. Long pepper has also been prized by these cultures for its aphrodisiac properties. One recipe, from the Kama Sutra, calls for long pepper to be mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to "utterly devastate your lady." The concoction is applied externally.
Long pepper's complexity takes well to ingredients with unusual, nuanced flavors, such as spring favorites like artichokes, asparagus, and mushrooms. These are best cooked simply, with freshly ground long pepper added at the end to preserve its flavor. In this time of mangoes, long pepper is the perfect complementary spice for sweet dishes and salads. Long pepper grinds easily in a spice grinder, and can be used as a substitute for black pepper—either finely ground or coarsely cracked—where a sweeter, spicier accent is desired.
Long pepper also takes exceedingly well to the dark, lusty inroads of barbecue. Fatty 'Cue, a Malaysian-inspired barbecue joint in Brooklyn, lacquers pork ribs with a sauce of fish sauce, palm sugar, and long pepper. But long pepper would be a fine addition to any dry rub; its garam masala-like flavors pair well with all manners of pork, beef, and lamb. Treat it like the bridge between black pepper and chiles in your spice blends to add considerable complexity and flavorful heat.
Though long pepper may not be as easy to find as black pepper, it's well worth seeking out. These suggestions only scratch the surface on a spice that is genuinely as, if not more, versatile as the ubiquitous black pepper. Dedicated spice shops will carry it, as do online merchants. It's a spice we owe to ourselves to bring back.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter.