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What is Long Pepper?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Jan 25, 2024

Long pepper is a spice from the plant of the genus and species Piper longum, which has been used for centuries in the Mediterranean, and in Indian, African, and Indonesian cooking. This unusual plant has a peppery taste similar to black pepper, though most consider it hotter, and in fact P. longum is a relative of the black pepper plant, P. nigrum. Today long pepper is mostly used in the countries mentioned above. Popularity of new world peppers largely replaced the use of long pepper in European cooking.

The plants on which long pepper fruits grow are quite unusual. They are flowering vines with large catkin flowers. Within each flower lie tiny black spikes, each comparable in size to a poppy seed. These spikes make up the spice long pepper, and the catkin is usually harvested whole, then dried for use in cooking. Significant use of this type of pepper extended from India, where it was likely first cultivated, to parts of Asia and most of the Middle East. Greek references to long pepper date back to the 4th century BCE. Medieval Europe certainly made use of the spice, both as food flavoring and for its supposed medicinal properties.

As with many ancient herbs and spices, long pepper had a dual role as a medicinal and as a cooking ingredient. In Aryuvedic medicine, long and black pepper and ginger are used together to created trikatu, a base ingredient for thousands of medical remedies. Alone, P. longum might be used to help with coughs, colds, fevers, and a variety of stomach conditions.

It was also believed that spices had a role in masking the flavor of spoiled or spoiling meats. In the past, refrigeration was either not available, very expensive, or not very effective. This meant that keeping food fresh was difficult. While it was once thought that spices were used to cover up the taste of bad meat, this theory has been disproved.

Both Attila the Hun and Alaric the Visigoth demanded ransoms of long and black pepper when they besieged Rome in the 400s CE. These spices were currency, in addition to providing food with flavor. Given the importance of long pepper, you would expect it to be in continual use in the present day. In fact it isn’t, even in Indian cooking. A few recipes in traditional Indian dishes, like pickles, call for the pepper, but it is now used less frequently.

It’s therefore difficult to find, though you may have some luck purchasing it at Indian run grocery stores. It’s also available on sites like Amazon — expect to pay a lot for it. A few ounces can cost over $10 US Dollars (USD). Of course, you should plan to use the spice more sparingly than black pepper since it imparts much greater heat.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Sep 13, 2012

@simrin-- You can use it whole or ground but I personally like to use it whole.

You can basically use long pepper in place of regular black pepper in any dish you like. Just put less in the beginning because since long pepper has that extra kick to it, it might be too much if you put the same amount as you would black pepper.

I think long pepper is really good in stews and soups, especially if you like very aromatic and slightly spicy stew. It would also be a fantastic addition to chili. That's what I plan on using long pepper in next.

By candyquilt — On Sep 13, 2012

@anon54620-- I disagree with you. I'm Turkish and I know for a fact that Turks who came from Central Asia used to use spices as a preservation method to prevent their meats from spoiling as they traveled. They were a nomadic group and they couldn't slaughter animals on a regular basis because they were always on the move. When they stopped somewhere and could slaughter an animal, they would preserve the meat with spices and store them to eat during their journey.

Today, we still eat a kind of meat called "pastirma" that is a food left over from our nomadic past. This meat is made by taking a chunk of raw beef and covering it with a spice paste made of salt, mashed garlic, long peppers and chili peppers. The spices allow the meat to dry without spoiling so that it can be eaten months or years later.

By SteamLouis — On Sep 12, 2012

My friend went on a trip to Bali recently and brought me back Balinese long pepper. She knows I love cooking and using spices so she thought this would be a great gift. I'm really excited about using it but I'm not sure how to use it or in which type of cuisine.

The one I have is whole long peppers, should I use it whole or should I grind it first?

What kind of dishes would long pepper suit?

By anon54620 — On Dec 01, 2009

The idea that spices were used to mask the taste/smell of spoiled meat has long been discredited. Fresh meat was available because animals were slaughtered as needed.

Also, the various preservation techniques used were quite effective. As noted above, much of the use of spices was to demonstrate wealth, status, and social/commercial connections.

By anon16856 — On Aug 16, 2008

Spices were expensive and used as a grand display of wealth in addition to please the human palate. The selling of meat was highly regulated during the middle ages.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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