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Rediscovering Long Pepper: The Forgotten Spice of India

How long pepper edges past its known cousins with its rich history, complex taste profile, medicinal properties, and culinary potential

11 Jan '24
6 min read


During one of my Wayanad trips in Kerala, I stumbled upon a peculiar spice at a local shop. Long, thin, and ridged, it exuded a fragrance that puzzled my senses. Its peppery aroma did a duet with earthy hints of clove and nutmeg. It was hot and sweet. Intrigued, I had to inquire before making the purchase. Turns out, it was long pepper or pippali, a relative of our familiar black pepper. Excited about this unique find, I was already planning my culinary experiments. But my inner nerd kicked in, prompting me to uncover more about this elusive spice rarely found in main supermarkets. Thus, this blog was born, diving into its history, taste profile, medicinal perks, and culinary delights.

Long pepper, scientifically named Piper longum, is a vine that blooms in India, Indonesia, and various spots across Southeast Asia. Unlike the small round balls of black pepper, long pepper takes the shape of elongated cones, packed with closely-clustered peppercorns. These days, it comes from wild bushes found in Kerala and Assam.

Pippali is its Sanskrit name, which interestingly is the predecessor to the word pepper

Before we get into its history, let’s understand its classification. So we have two types: piper longum hailing from India and the more widespread, budget-friendly piper retrofactum found in Indonesia, primarily on Java. Both taste quite alike, making them interchangeable in your cooking adventures.

History and Origins

Long pepper, undoubtedly, has a colourful global history. The first mention of long pepper dates back to ancient Ayurvedic texts, where its diverse uses were extensively detailed. Food scientist and historian K T Achaya, in his influential book ‘Indian Food: A Historical Companion,’ identifies long pepper among the earliest spices documented in India, along with mustard (baja), sour citrus (jambira), and turmeric (hardira). Pippali was also utilised in Awadhi cuisine, notably in dishes like nihari, galouti, and kakori kebabs.

Originating in North East India, long pepper embarked on a journey traversing both east to China and west to Europe, captivating medieval cooks with its remarkable warming and digestive attributes. By around 400 BC, it caught the attention of classical Greece, finding its way into the scripts of notable playwrights like Antiphanes, Eubulus, and Alexis. It was believed to be the first of peppers to reach the Mediterranean. 

The use of long pepper extended to culinary applications, including the creation of mulled medicinal wine known as hippocras, and persisted until the 1500s. Even Hippocrates discussed its medicinal properties. 

The making of Hippocras, the mulled medicinal wine  

However, by the late fifteenth century, its days of glory came to an end. As new waterway trade routes emerged, black pepper became more affordable, flooding markets. Melegueta pepper, an African spice, and later, the introduction of chilli peppers from South America by Christopher Columbus, rivalled long pepper. Chilli peppers, dubbed the 'American long pepper,' eventually pushed it out of the culinary spotlight due to their similarity and ease of cultivation.

But we have nothing to worry about as it continues to be a staple in traditional Indian and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Flavor Profile and Culinary Uses

As discussed in the beginning, the long pepper’s flavour profile goes beyond complex. It carries the spiciness and earthy tones akin to black pepper but with a more subtle and refined blend, balanced by hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom's sweetness. The heat will hit you enough to feel comforting like a balm. Hence we see its frequent use in lentil stews, rasam, pickles and vegetable dishes in India. It’s one of the star spice ingredients in nihari, a meat stew from Lucknow. 

You can add it to rasam 

Long pepper lends a unique touch to Southeast Asian-style roasted meats and pairs beautifully with ingredients boasting distinct and subtle flavours like artichokes, asparagus, and mushrooms. 

Recently, long pepper has witnessed a comeback, captivating pastry chefs for its fiery spice and delightful sweet undertones, an understated pairing for end-of-meal dishes. Opportunities are endless. For instance, it has steeped into caramel, garnished a chocolate pudding and topped an orange creme brulee. 

Spice up your caramel sauce with a kick of long pepper

So next time add it to your dish when you want to elevate it with more heat and depth.  

Now how to use it? You just grind the long pepper beforehand for dishes demanding a smoother spice profile or opt for whole pieces in heartier foods like stew or curry.  Use a pepper grinder for a fine peppery dust or take the traditional route, crushing it with a mortar and pestle for a more rustic touch. Add it to your meat rubs or barbecue sauce. For those looking to experiment further, try sprinkling over fruits.

Medicinal Properties and Health Benefits

Beyond its culinary uses, long pepper has a long history of medicinal applications in Ayurvedic and traditional medicine systems like Unani and Sidha. Long pepper has been employed to boost appetite and aid digestion, addressing issues like stomach ache, heartburn, gas, diarrhoea, and respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and cough. As a result, it made a resurgence in both restaurants and home kitchens during the pandemic as it boosted immunity (think rasam tempered with it). 

It can help with stomach ache 

When you bite into it the pungency hits you. That’s piperine, a bioactive compound present in all peppers including long peppers. It will surprise you with its pharmacological effects and several health benefits, especially against chronic diseases, such as reduction of insulin resistance and anti-inflammatory effects.

While researching this spice I stumbled upon a surprising tidbit: Women have historically used it during childbirth to speed up the uterus' healing process. Additionally, the Indian long pepper has been used by women to help menstrual flow.

Indian long pepper has been traditionally used in some cultures as a natural aphrodisiac. Bonus points: it may also support longevity and healthy circulation. Talk about a spicy multitasker! We can forget oysters for now. 

Want to manage diabetes? As per some studies, this pepper variant has the potential to lower blood sugar levels. 

It can help lower blood sugar

Where to pick it from? As an offline shopper, I prefer grocery stores to support the local ecosystem. Otherwise, there’s always the convenience of online platforms like Amazon, Flipkart, Swiggy Instamart, etc. 

So, whether you're a culinary enthusiast seeking a new flavour dimension or someone intrigued by the potential health perks, consider introducing long pepper into your kitchen repertoire. It might just add that distinctive zing to your dishes or offer a sprinkle of well-being to your life. 

Category : Food and Cooking


Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, Journalist , Photographer