The Pepper family (Piperaceae) has about 3600 species in two genera, of which genus Piper provides edible spices, herbs and roots. The largest number are in the Americas, but those of culinary fame are mostly from Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Pepper has been an important cooking spice since the depths of prehistory.
The mostly toxic Lizard Tail family (Saururaceae) provides one species that has culinary significance. Photo of Piper nigrum by K Hari Krishnan distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.
More on Magnoliids.
- [Uziza (Nigeria); West African Pepper, Benin pepper,
false cubeb, Guinea cubeb; Piper guineense]
This plant is native to the tropics of West and Central Africa.
Compared to Cubeb pepper it is less bitter and more herbal. It has a sharpness and flavor similar to black
pepper, but much less intense, while interesting resinous flavors are
more pronounced. The peppercorns are smaller than Cubeb, smooth and
oval instead of round and rough. Production is not high so not much
is shipped out of West Africa and it's relatively expensive even there.
It is sometimes used in the Berbere spice mix of Ethiopia, but due to
its expense, long pepper is more often used. This pepper was well known
in Europe during Medieval times but its use declined after the 14th
Thai Long Pepper
- [Chui Jhal (Bangladesh); Dee Plee (Thai);
This pepper, native to South and Southeast Asia, is used throughout
the region. In Bangladesh, the stems and roots are peeled, chopped and
used as a flavoring for meat dishes, particularly mutton, and tastes
somewhat like horseradish. In Thailand the fruits, which are orange-red
when ripe and black when dried, are used both fresh and dried,
pounded to paste or pounder and added to various curry pastes, and
added to fish to cut the fishy flavor. Various parts of the plant are
used medicinally throughout the region.
Photo by BotBin distributed under license Creative
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
Javanese Long Pepper
- [Balinese Long Pepper; Dei-Phle (Bangladesh);
Dee'b Plee (Thai); Piper retrofractum]
- [Soldier's herb; Piper aduncum]
This tree, which grows to 20 feet high, is native to southern Mexico,
the Caribbean and tropical South America. It is also grown in the
Pacific Islands, sometimes becoming an irritating invasive. The name
Matico is used in Peru, but in other South American countries the name
can refer to entirely unrelated plants. The long fruit spikes are
used as a substitute for Long Pepper and in Peru
are used to flavor cocoa. The leaves have medicinal uses, particularly
for treating wounds.
Photo by João Medeiros distributed under license
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Unported.
- [Long Pepper; Piper longum]
This pepper, related to the round black pepper, produces seed spikes
embedded with many poppy seed size peppercorns. These seeds have an
effect similar to black pepper but a bit sharper and more citrusy.
This pepper was very important in Europe from Roman times, but by the
14th century had been largely replaced by black pepper, and then, in
the 16th century was further displaced by dried chilis from the
Americas. This pepper is still used in India, North Africa, Indonesia
and Malaysia. The seed spikes are fairly hard, and need to be ground
- [Tailed pepper; Shital chini, Kabab chini (Hindi);
Unlike many things called "pepper", this one is actually a member of
the Piper genus along with black pepper. This plant is native
to Java in Indonesia and most today is still grown there. It was known
to the ancient Greeks as komakon, a corruption of it's Javanese name,
kumukus. It was popular in Europe until the king of Portugal banned
its sale in favor of black pepper (which he apparently had a financial
interest in) in 1640 and shipments pretty much ended by 1940. It is
still widely used as a spice in Indonesia. The taste is herbal and
much like green peppercorns, but it has much less sharpness. It has
also been widely used as a medicinal, from China to Europe.
Pepper / Peppercorns - Black, White, Green, Red
- [Piper nigrum]
Pepper originated on the Malabar (south west) coast of India, but major plantations were later established in Indonesia for trade with the Dutch. It is now grown also in Brazil and several Southeast Asian countries. Pepper has never been popular in Indonesia despite being grown there, but has long been used in India and parts of Southeast Asia, particularly before chilis were brought from South America. In Europe it has been the most important spice since the Roman Empire and was extremely expensive until the 18th century due to trade monopolies.
In more recent times pepper has spread to just about every cuisine,
particularly since the price has fallen so much and growing area has
increased. Pepper use has increased in Southeast Asia due to it being
grown there now and Thailand has taken a liking to fresh green
peppercorns. The photo specimens are: brined Green Peppercorns
(top), force dried Green Peppercorns (right),
White Peppercorns (left) and Black Peppercorns (center).
All these are from the same piper nigrum pepper vine, just
picked at different stages of ripeness and processed differently.
Details and Cooking.
[Madagascar Wild Pepper; Piper borbonense]
This pepper grows wild in Madagascar, where the fruits are dried and used
as a spice called voatsiperifery. It is described as having an earthy,
woody flavor with aromas of citrus and flowers. Once very difficult to
find, it is now often available on the Internet, for around 2013 US
$6.50 / ounce.
Photo by Fornax distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.
Wild Betel -
[Cha phlu (Thai); Kahe (N. Thai); Lá Lôt (Viet);
pokok kadok (Malay); Phak i leut, Ak eelerd (Lao);
This pepper plant, native to Southeast Asia is very similar to
Lalot, and the same names are often applied in Thai
and Vietnamese. The leaves have a light, pleasant bitterness that
compliments other foods. Leaves are used as wrappers for a popular Thai
snack called Miang kham, which may be served on open leaves, a
do-it-yourself kit with leaves and each ingredient separate, or as
pre-wrapped snacks. In northern Thailand it is the main ingredient in
Kaeng khae curry. In Laos and Malaysia leaves are shredded and
included in salads.
Forest and Kim Starr
distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, attribution required,
[Pepper Leaf; Lá Lôt (Viet); Japloo, Jeeploo (Khmer);
Chaphloo (Thai); Phak ee lert, Phak nang lert (Lao); Piper lalot]
The practice of wrapping meat in leaves (dolma) traveled from Persia through India to Southeast Asia. They don't have grape leaves in Southeast Asia, so the Vietnamese took to using lalot leaves instead, wrapped around a beef sausage filling and called Thit bò là lôt. This leaf is also used extensively as a medicinal.
Lalot is often confused with the closely related
(Piper samentosum), which has similar culinary uses. Both are
slightly bitter and neither is nearly as strongly aromatic as the
related Betel Leaf. The photo specimens, purchased from an Asian
market in Los Angeles, were up to 4 x 5-1/4 inches and sold in
4 ounce bundles at 2012 US $14.99 / pound.
Betel Leaf -
[Paan; Piper betle]
Cultivated all through India and Southeast Asia, this leaf is best known
as the wrapper for a slightly narcotic chew called Paan. It is not the
highly aromatic (and fairly bitter) leaf that has the narcotic effect
and negative health impact (oral cancer, etc.), but the areca palm nut
and tobacco around which it is wrapped. The photo specimens, purchased
from an Asian market in Los Angeles, were 6-1/4 x 8 inches, 2012 US
$23.99 / pound.
Pepper Wood / Chili Wood -
[mai sakahn (Laos); Piper ribisioides also Piper
The thick woody stems of this pepper vine are commonly used in Northern Laos and by Laotians in northeastern Thailand as a spice. Large splinters (1-1/2 x 1-1/2 inch and 1/4 inch thick) are included in soups and stews as a flavoring. It has a peppery flavor with hints of chili with a lingering aftertaste, and is somewhat numbing on the tongue. The berries are sometimes pressed for an oil that is also used as a spice. The plant is used medicinally.
If you can actually get some of this, it should be kept tightly
wrapped in the freezer, as it will dry out and turn black in a short
time. Subst: for a 1-1/2 x 1-1/2 inch 1/4 inch thick splinter,
use 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns and 5
Photo by Kirk K (cropped) distributed under license
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic".
Hoja Santa -
[Piper Sanctum; Yerba santa, Hierba santa, Mexican pepperleaf, Acuyo,
Tlanepa, Anisillo, Root beer plant; Piper auritum]
This plant is native to Central America, extending into Mexico and
northern South America. The fresh leaves are used in Mexican cuisine
for flavoring tamales, soups, eggs and chocolate drinks. It is an
essential ingredient in the Oxacan "mole verde" sauce. These leaves
have a very distinct "root beer" like taste.
The photo specimens were 9 inches long and up to 6-3/4 inches wide.
They were purchased from a large multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles
at the incredible price of 2015 US $1.45 for 2 leaves, together
weighing 3/8 ounce, or $61.87 / pound.
[Kava-kava; Awa (Hawaii); Piper methysticum]
Roots of this plant are pounded and made into a tea which has sedative
and anesthetic properties. It has been traditionally used by natives
of the entire Pacific Island region, including Hawaii, particularly
during social gatherings. It is also available in the Western World
in supplement capsules and pills. These may also include leaves and
stems, somewhat controversial as islanders use only the root. Overuse
of Kava, particularly when combined with alcohol consumption is known
to result in severe liver damage and other health problems.
Forest and Kim
Starr distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported, Attribution Required.
Fish Mint -
[Dap ca, Diep ca, Vap ca, Rap ca (Viet); Zhe'ergen, Yuxingcao (China);
Ja mardoh (Meghalaya India); Toningkok (Manipur India); Masunduri
(Assam India); Dokudami (Japan); Lizard tail, Chameleon plant,
Heartleaf, Fishwort, Bishop's weed; Houttuynia cordata of
family Saururaceae (lizard tails)]
This is the only significant edible plant in order Piperales that is not in the Piper genus. Fish Mint leaves are used particularly in Vietnam, the far northeast of India, and in south central China, often raw as a garnish or salad ingredient, but sometimes cooked with other vegetables. In northeast India it is used raw, but also cooked in fish curry.
In south central China (Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, western Guangxi) the long narrow rhizomes are eaten, usually raw in salads and the like. They are said to have a fresh peppery flavor.
Fish mint gets its name from having an unusual flavor which some people consider "fishy". This herb tends to wilt badly, but can be refreshed by complete immersion in cool water. The photo specimens, from a large Asian market in Los Angeles, had leaves up to 2 inches long and nearly 2 inches wide.
Variegated varieties are cultivated as decoratives under the name
"Chameleon Plant". The plant is used medicinally, particularly in
China. It can become a difficult to eradicate invasive, and
is considered as such in parts of the United States and Australia.
Canadian Snakeroot -
[Canada Wild Ginger, Broad-leaved Asarabacca; Asarum canadense]
This plant is native to eastern North America, from the Great Plains
east to the Atlantic, and from Southern Canada to the Southeast of the
United States. The long, clumping rhizomes were harvested by Native
Americans as a flavoring ingredient similar to ginger. This use is
discouraged by the US FDA due to its causing severe kidney damage and
certain types of cancers. A distilled extract called Canadian Snakeroot
Oil has been used as a flavoring ingredient.
Photo by Wasp32 distributed under license
Attribution-ShareAlike v4.0 International.