Pepper – There’s More To Choose From Than The Ubiquitous Black Pepper

    Pepper – There’s More To Choose From Than The Ubiquitous Black Pepper

    We all know of the Black Peppercorn, Green and White versions being available too but there are many more peppers to try and delight in.


    Sichuan or Szechuan pepper is the outer pod of the tiny fruit of a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylum (most commonly Z. piperitum, Z. simulans, Z. sancho and Z. schinifolium), widely grown and consumed in Asia as a spice. Despite the name, it is not related to black pepper or to chilli peppers. It is widely used in the cuisine of Sichuan, China, from which it takes its name, as well as Tibetan, Bhutani, and Japanese cuisines, among others.

    It is known in Chinese as hujio (literally flower pepper); a lesser-used name is shnjio (literally “mountain pepper”; not to be confused with Tasmanian mountain pepper). In Japanese, it is sansh, using the same Chinese characters as shanjiao. In Tibetan, it is known as g.yer ma.


    Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chilli peppers, but has slight lemony overtones and creates in the mouth a kind of tingly numbness (caused by its 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for these hot spices.

    Recipes often suggest lightly toasting and then crushing the tiny seedpods before adding them to food. Only the husks are used; the seeds are stone-like and are discarded. It is generally added at the last moment. Star anise and ginger are often used with it and it figures prominently in spicy Sichuan cuisine. It is considered to go well with fish, duck, and chicken dishes, as well as with fried eggplant. It has an alkaline pH and a numbing effect on the lips when eaten in larger doses. Ma la (Chinese: pinyin: málà; literally “numb and hot”), a flavour common in Sichuan cooking, is a combination of Sichuan pepper and chilli pepper.

    It is also available as an oil (marketed as either “Sichuan pepper oil” or “Hwajiaw oil”). In this form it is best used in stir fry noodle dishes without hot spices. The preferred recipe includes ginger oil and brown sugar to be cooked with a base of noodles and vegetables, with rice vinegar and Sichuan pepper oil to be added after cooking.

    Hua jiao yan is a mixture of salt and Sichuan pepper, roasted and browned in a wok and served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck and pork dishes. The peppercorns can also be lightly fried in order to make a spicy oil with various uses.

    Sichuan pepper is one of the few spices important for Tibetan and Bhutanese cookery of the Himalayas, because few spices can be grown there. One Himalayan specialty is the momo, a dumpling stuffed with vegetables, cottage cheese or minced yak meat, beef or pork and flavoured with Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger and onion. The noodles are steamed and served dry, together with a fiery sauce. Tibetans believe it can sanitize meat that may not be so fresh. In reality it may only serve to mask foul flavours. Perhaps it is because of the foul smell masking property of Sichuan pepper that made it popular in dishes made of visceral organs of slaughtered animals.

    Sichuan peppercorns are one of the traditional ingredients in the Chinese spice mixture five-spice powder and also shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-flavour seasoning.

    In Korean cuisine, two species are used: Z. piperitum and Z. schinifolium.


    Cubeb (Piper cubeba), or Tailed Pepper, is a plant in the genus Piper so closely related to the black, white a green pepper that we are all familiar with, and cultivated for its fruit and essential oil. It is mostly grown in Java and Sumatra, hence sometimes called Java pepper.

    The fruits are gathered before they are ripe, and carefully dried. Commercial cubebs consist of the dried berries, similar in appearance to black pepper, but with stalks attached — the “tails” in “tailed pepper”. The dried pericarp is wrinkled, its colour ranges from grayish-brown to black. The seed is hard, white and oily. The aroma of cubebs is described as agreeable and aromatic. The taste, pungent, acrid, slightly bitter and persistent. It has been described as tasting like allspice, or like a cross between allspice and black pepper.

    Cubeb came to Europe via India through the trade with the Arabs. The name cubeb comes from Arabic kababah, which is of unknown origin, by way of Old French quibibes.

    Cubeb is mentioned in alchemical writings by its Arabic name. In his Theatrum Botanicum, John Parkinson tells that the king of Portugal prohibited the sale of cubeb in order to promote the black pepper (Piper nigrum) around 1640. It experienced a brief resurgence in 19th century Europe for medicinal uses, but has practically vanished from the European market since. It continues to be used as a flavouring agent for gins and cigarettes in the West, and as a seasoning for food in Indonesia and Africa.

    It is yet another of the odd peppers that is due to see a resurgence in popularity – it has been ignored for too long and is more than worth trying out as an alternative to the all too familiar peppercorns we are used to.


    Melegueta Pepper better known as Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta) is a species in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. It is commonly known as Guinea Pepper, Ethiopian Pepper, Alligator Pepper and Guinea Grains but it is all the same thing.

    It is a West African spice that gives a pungent, peppery flavour. The plant is a herbaceous perennial, native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Its trumpet-shaped, purple flowers develop into 5 to 7 cm long pods containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds.

    The seeds have a pungent, peppery taste due to aromatic ketones.

    Grains of paradise are commonly employed in the cooking styles of West Africa and North Africa, where they have been traditionally imported via caravan routes through the Sahara desert. Grains of paradise became a very fashionable substitute for black pepper in the 14th and 15th century Europe, especially in northern France, one of the most populous regions in Europe at the time. In the early modern period, the craze for the spice waned and it became more common as a flavour ingredient for sausages and beer. Today it is largely unknown outside of West and North Africa except as a flavour in some beers, gins and Norwegian acquavit but is well worth the experiment. Its high time this pungent spice made a comeback into common usage in Europe and the US.


    Long pepper (Piper longum), sometimes and variously called Javanese, Indian or Indonesian Long Pepper, is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. Long pepper is a close relative of Piper nigrum giving black, green and white pepper, and has a similar, though generally hotter, taste. The word pepper itself is derived from the Sanskrit word for long pepper, pippali. The fruit of the pepper consists of many minuscule fruits — each about the size of a poppy seed — embedded in the surface of a flower spike that closely resembles a hazel tree catkin. The fruits contain the alkaloid piperine, which contributes to their pungency. Another species of long pepper, Piper retrofractum, is native to Java, Indonesia. Today, long pepper is an extremely rare ingredient in European cuisines, but it can still be found in Indian vegetable pickles, some North African spice mixtures, and in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking.


    Long pepper reached Greece in the fifth or sixth century BCE, though Hippocrates,the first writer to mention it, discussed it as a medicament rather than a spice. Amongst the Greeks and Romans and prior to the European discovery of the New World, long pepper was an important and well-known spice. The ancient history of black pepper is often interlinked with (and confused with) that of long pepper, though Theophrastus distinguished the two in the first work of botany. The Romans knew of both and often referred to either as just piper; Pliny erroneously believed that dried black pepper and long pepper came from the same plant. Round, or black pepper began to compete with long pepper in Europe from the twelfth century and had displaced it by the fourteenth. The quest for cheaper and more dependable sources of black pepper fueled the Age of Discoveries; only after the discovery of the New World and of chilli pepper, called by the Spanish pimiento, employing their word for long pepper, did the popularity of long pepper fade away. Chilli peppers, some of which, when dried, are similar in shape and taste to long pepper, were easier to grow in a variety of locations more convenient to Europe. Today long pepper is a rarity in general commerce but we’ve got it!.

    Peppers such as Cubeb and Grains of Paradise, that create a new and fragrant choice of heat and pungency for the adventurous cook.

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