A Lusty Little Pepper

As I said in my last post, occasionally I have to write essays for school. It seems the typical required length will be but a page, so I thought I’d give them a second audience and share them with you. Our first assignment was to research the history and culinary uses of an herb or spice with which we were unfamiliar. Here is the result:

A Lusty Little Pepper

When faced with a recipe requiring a spice I’ve neither seen nor heard of, I have a tendency to first seek out an alternative. Of course I always keep that spice in the back of my mind, hoping that one day I’ll happen upon an epicerie and think to lay down my cash and experience the real thing. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I came across Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Spiced Butternut Squash Soup reliant upon the cubeb pepper.

Although native to Indonesia, and thus nicknamed Java pepper, the cubeb seems most prevalent in Moroccan cuisine and is a star ingredient in the North African spice mix Ras el Hanout, consisting of up to 20 herbs, spices and aphrodisiacs. In fact, cubeb too has been used as an aphrodisiac throughout history. It is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights that Shams-al-Din is given an edible paste made from cubeb and other sundry items as an aphrodisiac remedy for infertility. Those attributes are also reflected in South Asian lore; “Unani physicians use a paste of the cubeb berries externally on male and female genitals to intensify sexual pleasure during coitus,” (Wikipedia).  Various other medicinal qualities have been alleged of this wee peppercorn:  physicians of the Tang Dynasty used it for everything from darkening the hair to restoring the appetite, “Sanskrit texts included cubeb in various remedies. Charaka and Sushruta (both ancient Indian physicians) prescribed cubeb paste as a mouthwash, and the use of dried cubebs internally for oral and dental diseases, loss of voice, halitosis, fevers, and cough.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, more than one culture has also been known to use cubeb as a ward from demons.

Not to be outdone, Western medicine has also recognized the varying effects of cubeb on the humors of the body. In the 17th and early 19th centuries the London Dispensatorie published that cubebs “cleanse the head of flegm and strengthen the brain, they heat the stomach and provoke lust…and are very profitable for cold griefs of the womb,” (Wikipedia). Cubeb’s antiseptic qualities have also proven useful as an ingredient in remedies that treat bronchitis and most medically significant, gonorrhea.

Resembling an engorged black peppercorn with a clove-like stem, the cubeb is said to “have a warm, pleasant aroma, lightly peppery but also allspice-like, with a whiff of eucalypt and turpentine,” and is said to pair well with bay, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaf, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric (Norman 229). When attempting to prepare the soup mentioned above, I was told to substitute equal parts black pepper and allspice. The aroma that emanated from my mortar and pestle was floral, spicy and sweet: a heady and intoxicating scent perfect for high-end cologne, or your next lamb tagine. True cubeb is said to carry a bitterness—one of the reasons it lost favor through the years. However, New American cuisine seems to be taking a turn for the bitter; so, perhaps it’s a time for this lonely spice to find a few new, and perhaps, lusty friends to rediscover the attributes prized by so many cultures before us.

Works Referenced

Donnelly, Kristen. “Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Recipes.” Food & Wine October 2011. Print.

Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s References. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Barber, Kimiko, et. al. The Illustrated Cook’s Book of Ingredients. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Katzer, Gernot. “Spice Pages: Cubeb Pepper (Piper Cubeba, Cubebs).” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. 25 April 1998. 08 January 2012.

“Cubeb.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2 December 2011. 8 January 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubeb&gt;.

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