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Long Pepper: The Spice that Europe Forgot
A Spice from History
In Europe, long pepper is known to have competed with pepper as a spice and was cast away in the flood of changes happening in history. Originally the Arabs used to buy long pepper from the Indian sub-continent and it was only later that pepper replaced long pepper as the favourite spice. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates discussed this herb as a medicine mostly but in Greece, it had been popular as a culinary flavouring agent since the 6th century BCE. The catkins of the plant were dried and used as a spice. Only in the 4th century CE did black pepper reach Greece and put an end to the reign of long pepper. The difficulty to cultivate long pepper (which is greatly partial to its natural habitat) and the lower productivity of this vine as compared to the pepper vine might have been the reasons why this spice was lost to the palatal memories of the world. By the 16th century CE, long pepper fell out of use in Europe.
The Distinct Taste of Long Pepper
The book, Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide, describes the long pepper as the ‘lost superior pepper’ and describes its taste as “blunt and earthy”. Just like pepper, long pepper also has in it, piperine, a substance that activates the heat-sensing neurones of the human body. The taste of long pepper is also compared to that of Sichuan peppercorns.
Nowadays, while the rest of the world has forgotten long pepper as a spice, it adds flavour to some rare and unique dishes in India and Pakistan. For example, they are pickled in India and sometimes added to other pickles to improve their shelf life. Long pepper can be bought in some of the North Indian spice markets. In some African countries also, this spice is used for cooking.
Powder Fort: The Spice Mix of the Medieval Times
Powder fort, Poudre fort, and Strong powder are the names used to describe a spice mix that had long pepper in it and was popular in the medieval period. It is supposed to be a mix of cloves, pepper, long pepper, and nutmeg ground together. To grind the long pepper, usually, a coffee grinder is used. Long pepper was also a common ingredient of medieval spiced wines and drinks such as ale.
Powder Forte: Ingredients
Nihari, The Long Pepper Mutton Stew
Nihari is the mutton stew popular in Pakistan and it is made using the spice, the long pepper. This dish originated in Lucknow, now the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, and earlier the capital of Awadh, a legendary kingdom ruled by the Shia Muslim rulers. Slow-cooked mutton is the main ingredient.
For the Mutton Stew:
- 1 kilogram mutton, pieces
- 2 onion, finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
- 1 tablespoon ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1/2 tablespoon turmeric powder
- 3 tablespoons wheat flour
- 3 tablespoons nihari spice mix
- 2 tablespoons coriander powder
- to taste salt
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- for garnishing fresh coriander leaves and ginger cut into strips
For the Nihari spice mix:
- 1 tablespoon cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon fennel seed
- 1 tablespoon dry ginger powder
- 1/4 tablespoon grated nutmeg
- 4 green cardamom
- 4 cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 8-10 long pepper
- 1 inch cinnamon stick
- To make Nihari spice mix, dry roast all the spices listed above and cool them and grind them to a fine powder.
- Heat ghee in a deep bottom pot and fry onions till they turn brown. Add mutton pieces, coriander powder, turmeric powder, ginger paste, garlic paste, and salt to taste. Saute for 5 minutes and stir well. Add 8 cups of water and the Nihari Spice Mix. Cook on low flame for about 4 hours. When the meat turns tender, add the wheat flour mixed well in half a cup of water. Simmer and cook for another 10-15 minutes. When the gravy is thick, add lemon juice and garnish with coriander leaves. Serve hot. The distinct and lingering flavour of long pepper is what sets this mutton stew apart.
Nihari Mutton Stew
Long Pepper: Medicinal Uses
Long pepper in ancient times was thought of as a sexual enhancer and stimulant that increases semen count when used as a concoction along with milk, sesame oil and ghee. This mixture also had the reputation of being an effective sleep aid.
Currently, in Ayurveda, long pepper is used in many medicinal preparations used in treating digestive and respiratory disorders. The roots of long pepper are also used in Ayurvedic preparations. Some popular medicinal preparations in which long pepper is an active ingredient are,
Lavana Bhaskara Choorna
Pippalyasava is helpful for digestion. Triphala choorna is considered an anti-ageing and rejuvenation medicine and is prescribed by Ayurveda practitioners as suitable for daily intake for all once they enter their middle age.
Long Gone and Forgotten
When chilli pepper from South America was introduced during the voyages of Christopher Columbus to Europe, that also put a final lid on the use of long pepper and pushed it into oblivion. Unlike long pepper, chilli was a very flexible crop, one that could adapt to different climates and geography. Thus ended the era of long pepper, and this plant was returned to a wild existence in forests and wastelands of the Indian subcontinent, and in less known indigenous food cultures.
Lionel D. Barnett, Antiquities of India: An Account of the History and Culture of Ancient Hindustan, 1914.
Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide, Cecily Wong, Dylan Thuras, Atlas Obscura, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Deepa