Today, a shaker of black pepper is found on table settings all across the world. But for thousands of years, there was another contender for adding spice to food. Long pepper (Piper longum) is a close relative of black pepper (Piper nigrum). As opposed to the small spheres of black pepper, the long pepper is, aptly, long and conical, with tightly-clustered peppercorns. These peppercorns are sun-dried and then either used whole, crushed with a mortar and pestle, or broken up and used in a spice grinder. Their flavor is similar to black pepper but with more complexity. They are sweeter, not as hot, and have a citrusy bite similar to Szechuan peppercorns.
The long pepper hails from India. In fact, its Sanskrit name, pippali, is the predecessor to the word pepper. Long pepper was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome, and later spread to greater Europe, where it was used in cooking and to make the mulled medicinal wine hippocras until the 1500s. Due to the challenge of growing the plant outside its native home, and the subsequent higher price, long pepper gradually became less popular than black pepper. After Columbus brought back allspice and chili peppers from the Americas, the use of long peppers faded almost entirely in Europe.
Although now hard to find throughout much of the West, long pepper is still popular in Indian cooking. It is used in the spicy soup rasam, lentil curries, and Indian pickle, and is an essential ingredient in the mutton stew nihari.
Need to Know
The more affordable and easier-to-grow Indonesian variety of long pepper (Piper retrofractum) is often sold as Indian long pepper. The appearance and flavor is similar, but the Indonesian variety has a slight herbal taste and more heat. It can be purchased online or at Indian grocery stores. For true Indian long pepper, your best bet is to pay a visit to local spice vendors while in India.