“Mystical” is how chef Tarun Sibal describes pippali, or long pepper. Even though it belongs to the pepper family, Piper longum, as it is scientifically known, looks very different from the small, round black pepper we are used to. Its slender, long form, combined with fruity notes and remarkable healing properties, make pippali a very distinctive spice. Just a dash can elevate a dish.
“Once an integral part of the Indian spice box, it got lost along the way due to lack of widespread availability. Also, the oral traditions regarding its usage somehow petered away,” says Sibal, chef and owner of Titlie in Goa, Street Storyss in Bengaluru and One Fine Meal in Delhi. But at a time when the pandemic has fuelled a desire to boost immunity and respiratory health, this ancient spice is making a comeback to both restaurant and home kitchens.
Meenakshi Meyyappan of The Bangala in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, has been whipping up rasam with thipli, as she calls the spice. “We are having this daily to clear the lungs,” she says. In her family, it used to be crushed with betel leaf juice and given to children suffering from coughs to draw out the phlegm. “It has a very strong flavour. It is available only in Ayurveda shops. During the covid-19 Pandemic, the doctor suggested making rasam with it every day. We do so now," adds Meyyappan.
Long pepper has a long history. In his seminal book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, K.T. Achaya lists it as one of the earliest spices ever recorded in India, alongside mustard (baja), a sour citrus (jambira) and turmeric (hardira). Pippali was exported from the southern parts of India nearly 4,000 years ago and was used to add heat to food before chillies made an appearance in the subcontinent. “Sushruta describes seven types of cooked meats,” writes Achaya, of which the vesavara, or the meat stuffing, “could either be spiced with long pepper (pippali), round pepper (maricha) and ginger, or sweetened with guda and ghee.” Awadhi cuisine too once made use of pippali, in nehari, galouti and kakori kebabs.
Today it is derived from wild shrubs growing in Kerala and Assam. Once available mostly at Ayurveda shops, it has now been added to their inventory by organic suppliers. “I came across pippali during the Delhi farmers’ organic market,” says chef Abhishek Basu of the JW Marriott hotel in Juhu, Mumbai, who has been using it in some form or the other over the years. Similarly, Ashwani Kumar, executive sous chef at the Leela Ambience, Delhi, swears by it and believes the spice is great for India’s weather. “It helps build immunity for mothers who have just given birth. In Ayurveda, there is not a single part of the body that it doesn’t heal, be it teeth, lungs, pancreas, gut or nerves,” he says. Kumar, who is from Jharkhand,has seen pippali being used in the battees masale, or 32-spice mix, which is similar to Chyawanprash.
It is slightly difficult to crush and powder, and that may diminish its charm in the modern kitchen, with its reliance on speed and convenience. “However, you can dry-roast it just like cumin. This makes it easier to crush and also subdues its dominant flavour a little. Using it completely raw will give a very strong kick,” says Basu.
He uses pippali in pepper fish, replacing the black with long pepper. Basu suggests using it in marinades for meats as well. In fact, pippali combined with tulsi and honey makes for a lovely marinade for pork spare ribs. “Chefs are using it a lot more now. And it becomes even more significant during the pandemic,” he adds.
Chefs are finding ways of using pippali in cocktails, dips and sourdough. Radhika Khandelwal, executive chef-owner, Radish Hospitality, which owns Fig & Maple in Delhi, infuses gin with mango and pippali, and also uses it in a curried pumpkin and coconut dip. “We usually pair it with a sweeter fruit and vegetable to balance out and enhance the hot but earthy flavours of the pippali,” she says. While some chefs source it from organic suppliers, she gets it from the source, with her chef from Nepal bringing the spice from his home town.
Sibal, after working with pippali in traditional dishes, is now using it in European cuisine as well. It acts as a secret ingredient in the cream-based sauces at Titlie in Goa, adding a touch of fruity gingeriness to them. “We have also just introduced a vegetarian version of a nehari and a jackfruit galouti at Street Storyss in Bengaluru. The results are beautiful. Pippali adds a distinctive vibrance to dishes,” he says.