Long Pepper: A Short History
Long pepper, distinct from black, green and white, has a history all of its own.
We now think of chilli as the spice that gives Indian food its heat but chilli peppers were unknown in the subcontinent until Portuguese traders introduced them at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
That’s not to say that South Asian dishes weren’t spicy - they were. But the heat was achieved through using pepper rather than chilli. There were two types of pepper commonly used. The first was Piper nigrum, or black pepper - the peppercorns we’re familiar with today. The second, and more widely used, was Piper longum, known as long pepper or pippali.
Long pepper and Ayurvedic enhancement
Long pepper is a slender creeping plant which has a hot, peppery, spicy flavour. Widely distributed in India, it was used as a medicinal ingredient before being used a culinary one. Historically, it’s had an important position in the Indian medicine systems of Ayurveda, Unani and Sidha, which it maintains to this day.
One modern remedy based on Ayurveda tradition calls for a mixture of long pepper, ghee, sesame oil, and milk. The concoction apparently, ‘enhances sexual desire, vigour and frequency’, especially for sexuality that’s ‘diminishing due to ageing.’ Today, it’s still used to aid sleep, prevent colds and as a stimulant.
Long pepper’s use as a sexual enhancer has an extensive history. According to the Kama Sutra (c.400-300 BCE), a mixture of long pepper, black pepper, datura (a type of poisonous flowering plant) and honey, will allow a man to ‘bewitch and subjugate his partners’. And some ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts believed it could be used for ‘increasing the semen’.
Long pepper and the Mediterranean
Long pepper is believed to have been the first of the peppers to reach the Mediterranean. And, throughout antiquity, it was more highly regarded than black pepper. In ancient Rome, it was a luxury item that cost twice as much as black pepper. As in India, long pepper was used primarily for its medicinal properties, though it was also used to flavour food and wine.
Not every Roman was entirely sure of the difference between the peppers. Pliny got a little confused and thought that if you left long pepper to dry in the sun it would turn into white pepper. This is actually the process for producing black pepper. But then Pliny wasn’t a fan of either kind of pepper, writing:
‘Why do we like it so much? Some foods attract by sweetness, some by their appearance, but neither the pod [long pepper] nor the berry of pepper [black pepper] has anything to be said for it. We only want it for its bite - and we will go to India to get it!’
Long pepper in the Middle Ages
Long pepper remained popular in Europe long after the fall of Rome, right up until the sixteenth century. Black pepper, on the other hand, wouldn’t become fashionable until the twelfth century.
During the Middle Ages, tenants were known to have paid their landlords with long pepper. And the famed fourteenth century chef of the French court, Guillaume Tirel, listed it among the basic spices in his store cupboard.
Long pepper was a relatively common ingredient in medieval drinks, including mead and ale. It also turned up in various spiced wines, including the widely popular hippocras, a wine infused with spices and believed to have health-giving properties.
Battle of the peppers
During the 1400 and 1500s, long pepper lost its place as the go-to heat-giving spice of European pantries.
Long pepper traditionally arrived in Europe via overland trade routes from northern India, while pepper came via sea routes. As new waterway trade routes opened up and became more established, black pepper became cheaper and flooded the market. Alongside this, another spice from West Africa, known as Grains of Paradise or Melegueta pepper, was becoming increasingly fashionable. Both in direct competition with long pepper.
On top of that, the chilli pepper, introduced by Christopher Columbus from South America in the late 1400s, would eventually winout as the king of spice. Within 50 years of chilli’s introduction to the Old World, it was being grown across Africa, India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, central Europe and Italy.
As food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat points out, the chilli acted as a natural substitute for long pepper. So similar, in fact, that when it first arrived in Europe it was referred to as the ‘American long pepper’. And, unlike long pepper, it could be grown practically anywhere.
And so, by the sixteenth century, long pepper had lost out to various contenders. For Europeans, black pepper offered the peppery flavour they desired and chillies the spice. It’s still well known in its native India, but it’s all but forgotten in the West.