by The Sultan of Spices, Ian “Herbie” Hemphill
Other Varieties of “Pepper”
In part two of the pepper story, we have a look at some other spices commonly referred to as pepper. The first two, cubeb pepper and long pepper are related to the true vine pepper (Piper nigrum) we discussed before, while schinus, Sichuan and mountain pepper are unrelated.
Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) which is also called “tailed” pepper, comes from a tropical climber native to Indonesia. Cubebs are dried until black and are similar in appearance to a black peppercorn, except for the little 2 to 8 millimeter stalk protruding from one end like a spherical cartoon bomb with its fuse. Cubeb pepper has a small seed suspended inside, but does not contain a white core like Piper nigrum. The aroma is fresh, peppery, piney and citrus-like, while the flavor is distinctly pine-like, hot and pungent.
Cubeb was the East Indian name given to P. cubeba, which the Arabs recognized as having come from Java as early as the 10th century. The popularity of cubeb pepper has waxed and waned over the centuries. In the 13th century it was popular in Europe as a condiment and for its medicinal qualities, but by the 17th century cubebs were rarely seen. At times of high pepper prices during the 20th century, cubebs, when available at a low enough cost, were used to adulterate true pepper, causing them to fall into disrepute and to even be banned as an admixture to pepper by some authorities.
The long peppers of India and Indonesia come from slender climbers that have sparser-looking foliage than P. nigrum, the most noticeable difference between the two being that the fruits of Indian long pepper (P. longum) are smaller and less pungent than those of Javanese long pepper (P. retrofractum). Long pepper is so called because the fruits are long, cylindrical spikes 5 millimeters in diameter and 2.5 to 4 centimeters long. Each dark-brown to black, rough-surfaced spike resembles a male pine flower catkin, which when viewed in cross section reveals a cartwheel of up to 8 minute, dark-red seeds. Long pepper has an extremely sweet, fragrant aroma which seems like a cross between incense and orris root powder. The flavor is bitingly hot, lingering and numbing, belying its innocent smell.
Then there are two members of schinus trees that bear small, red berries that are often sold as pink peppercorns. Schinus ariera, the one seen commonly in Australia, grows from 7 to 20 meters tall, depending upon water supply, and has drooping, frond-like leaves, small yellowish flowers and bears long catkins of berries. The berries are first green, turn yellow, and ripen in chains of rosy-pink peppercorns. The variety most often grown for culinary purposes is S. terebinthifolius, a denser, shorter tree with glossy, oval leaves that look more like bay leaves. The tiny flowers are white and the fruits are borne in thick upright bunches, larger than S. ariera and ripening to a deeper pink and scarlet. S. terebinthifolius berries, when dried are up to 5 millimeters in diameter, have a pale to bright pink friable outer husk which has little aroma or flavor and contain a small (3 millimeter diameter) hard, dark-brown, irregular seed. The seed when crushed releases a sweet, volatile, pine-like aroma faintly smelling like piperine oil, the key component in true black pepper. The flavor burst is similarly sweet, warm, fresh and camphorous with a lingering astringency but little heat.
These attractive “pepper” trees are native to the Andean desserts in Peru and one can only imagine the uses they may have been put to by what are now lost civilizations, however it is known that the South American Indians use the berries to flavor alcoholic beverages. Sometimes referred to as the “Brazilian or American mastic tree” because the whitish sap of S. molle was used in South America as a chewing gum. It is also a member of the same family as the tree that yields the resinous sap “mastic” (Pistacia lentiscus) used in Greek cooking. The schinus species of trees grow prolifically in arid, well-drained soils in almost any temperate area of the world, hence their popularity as a shade and decorative tree in many parts of Australia. Schinus terebinthifolius or “Christmas berry” as it is often called, is grown commercially on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, and is either pickled in brine or dried. These pink peppercorns became fashionable, more for their appearance than flavor, to put into glass peppermills along with black, white and green dried peppercorns. Food fashion aficionados were dealt a blow in the 1980’s when some articles in the United States press mentioned over-consumption of this type of pink pepper could cause illness. Following extensive analysis, it appears the most dramatic effects of excessive use of S. terebinthifolius are varying degrees of intestinal irritation depending upon one’s age and health, as could happen with chile or black pepper. Therefore it is not deemed to be highly toxic, and consumption of amounts that would be considered normal to flavor food should present the average cook with no problems.
Not to be confused with vine peppers, Sichuan pepper refers to the dried berries of the prickly ash, or fagara.. It is a small deciduous tree growing to 3 meters high, with sharp, spiny prickles on the stem and branches. It has 30 centimeter long leaf clusters divided into 5 to 11 oval leaflets that resemble small bay leaves. In late spring, small greenish-yellow flowers appear before the leaves, and are followed by spherical, red berries up to 5 mm in diameter. When dried the berries split, revealing a tiny, black seed that is particularly gritty when crushed. These split berries look somewhat like one seed-section of a star anise, the theory being that this likeness led to the often-used name of “anise pepper” for this spice. The aroma of Sichuan pepper is warm, peppery, fragrant, with citrus notes and when crushed smells of lavender flowers. Its flavor is similarly pepper-like and tangy, while leaving a lingering, numbing, fizzy sensation on the tongue.
Native to Sichuan, the southwest province of China that borders on Tibet, Sichuan pepper is thought to have come into culinary use during the 1st millennium B.C. as a result of Indian cultural influences. Prickly ash trees of the Zanthoxylum species are found in China, Japan, and in North America, where the American Indians employed the bark as a general stimulant and a panacea for toothache. This variety, Z. americanum, is referred to appropriately as the “toothache tree.” The Japanese make pestles and mortars from the wood of prickly ash trees, claiming that it imparts a distinct, yet mild flavor to the food being pounded.
Native to Australia are the Tasmannia genus of peppers often referred to as mountain pepper. Mountain pepper shrubs are distinguished by the attractive deep red of their young stems and branches, which color in the same way as new, crimson gum tips, something difficult to surpass as a typically Australian rural vase arrangement. In ideal conditions, Mountain pepper will grow from 4 to 5 meters tall, basically a small tree. However, I tend not to call this a tree as it only adds to the confusion between all the types of pepper. The broad-based, tapering leaves on mountain pepper are longer on plants growing in lowland areas, up to 13 centimers, and much shorter on alpine dwelling ones that may have leaves only 1.5 centimeters in length. Small yellow to cream-colored flowers are followed by shiny, deep purple to black, plump fruits about 5 millimeters in diameter and containing a cluster of tiny black seeds inside. The leaves, fruits and even the fresh flower buds all have a distinct mountain pepper aroma and taste, albeit at varying intensities.
Mountain pepperleaf, which is stronger when dried, has a pleasing woody fragrance with vague pepper and dry, cinnamon-like notes. The flavor is similarly woody and camphor-like until its sharp pepper taste and lingering heat becomes apparent. Mountain pepper berries have an oily, mineral-like, turpentine aroma and when even minute grains of the ground fruits are tasted, an initial sweet, fruity flavor is quickly followed by an intense, biting, tongue-numbing and eye-watering heat that continues to build and will not subside for some minutes. This continuing heat development which is experienced with both the leaves and the berries is a result of the enzymes contained in mountain pepper being activated by one’s saliva.
Native to the eastern seaboard of Australia, T. lanceolata is found growing wild in the rainforests and wet, mountain gullies of Tasmania and Victoria to altitudes of 1,200 m. Dorrigo pepper (T. insipida) grows wild in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Although these plants grow prolifically on the East Coast of Australia, there appears to be no evidence of their culinary or medicinal application by the indigenous people. It is thought that some 19th century colonists made use of its bark, possibly as an external liniment, however culinary interest in the flavor components of Australian native plants is a recent 20th century development, which has now become fashionable.
Australian spice expert Ian “Herbie” Hemphill is the author of Spice Notes, one of the most authoritative books ever written on spices. It is available from www.herbies.com.au
(For a review, see Media Meltdown Winter 2001)