Back from the brink of culinary extinction, long pepper takes the spicelight.
Long pepper, Piper longum, is the sweeter and spicier cousin of the black peppercorn you already know and love. It was once the most popular pepper of the Romans, but was usurped by standard black pepper and has since faded into obscurity in the western world. The flavor of long pepper is hot, with hints of cinnamon and a sweet woody undertone.
Its long slender body and pineapple-like skin may raise an eyebrow. This is the latest stage of a catkin, a spike or cone of flowers. Those flowers turn into densely clustered berries that form the shape of the long pepper.
Long pepper grows on a tall vine just like its more common peppercorn cousin. When the fruit ripens, turning a red-orange color, it is picked by hand and dried in the sun.
Our long peppers come from a small family farm in the Takéo province of southern Cambodia, called Kiri Farms. The Takéo province borders the Kampot region, where some of the finest black peppercorns in the world are grown. They have been growing long pepper for over two decades, keeping it in stock for spice connoisseurs who appreciate it.
“It was a profitable plant for the region to grow about 25 years ago,” says Steve Menger, proprietor of Kiri Farms. “Many families stopped growing it when it became less profitable but our family is one of the few farms which has lasted this long.”
Steve actually prefers using the fresh, green pepper in his cooking.“I like the fresh green long pepper which can be used in a similar way to a vegetable. It’s a bit remarkable because it has a wonderfully complex flavor with the texture of a vegetable and the heat of pepper. So we use it in stir fried dishes and you can use it in steak sauce.”
On the Kiri Farms blog you will find many traditional Cambodian recipes for using long pepper. They have a neat recipe video for making authentic Khmer curry. Note that the recipe specifically says, “Do NOT substitute regular black pepper.”
The easiest way to use long pepper is in place of black pepper. Try it on a steak or hamburger. You can snap the catkin into smaller bits and feed it right into a pepper mill. You can also throw the whole spikes into a cooking dish, stew or pickle brine. Although snapping it first will release the flavor faster.
While black pepper and long pepper are cousins, they still have their unique flavor profiles. Long pepper is noticeably hotter than black, black pepper burns while long pepper tingles.
The first time I tried this spice I was suffering from a slight cold. I snapped a few fingers of long pepper into smaller chunks and dropped them into my pepper mill. I cracked the mill three or four times over a bowl of simple chicken and vegetable soup. At first slurp I immediately detected the sweet heat on my compromised palette. I consumed an excessive amount of long pepper that night. The warm soup and the tingle on my tongue brought new life into my body, and inspiration into my stomach.
Since then I’ve been enjoying swapping long pepper in place of black pepper in much of my cooking: Over my eggs in the morning, adding it to our curry blends, cracking over my salads, and adding it to my homemade pickles.
Below you will find a fun and simple recipe for strawberry and fennel salad, featuring long pepper. The sweet, juicy strawberries and the heat of the long pepper make for an interesting and yummy flavor profile. The small bits of crushed long pepper pop and crunch in your mouth. Creamy feta mellows out the pepper tingle, and the onions and fennel keep the dish crisp and light. This dish would pair nicely with some grilled fish and white wine.
Strawberry-Fennel Salad with Long Pepper
Strawberries – quartered or shingled.
Fennel – julienne
Red onion – julienne
Feta – cubed (whatever kind you like! I used Greek.)
French grey sea salt – to taste
Long pepper, freshly ground – modest to moderate sprinkling
1 part wildflower honey
1 part fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 part extra virgin olive oil
Whisk dressing ingredients together until evenly dissolved.
Tip: use the lemon juice to dissolve the honey before you add the olive oil.
(optional-add a spot of dijon mustard as an emulsifier)
Lightly toss onions and fennel in the dressing.
Plate in a shallow a bowl, topping with strawberries, and feta.
Season with sea salt and good amount of fresh cracked long pepper.
Garnish with fennel leaves and enjoy!
Photos of green and ripe long pepper courtesy of Kiri Farms.