5 Reasons to Try This Ancient Spice


Photo by Ryan Stiner

Cubebs have been used for centuries to add flavor to everything from gin to beef to fruit. Here, the author gives five reasons why they're worth a taste.

1.) It's a Cool Thing to Be Searching So Long and Then to Find Something
As you know, I love the obscure, and I'm particularly fascinated with foods that were once very popular but then seem to have disappeared. Cubebs certainly fit the bill. During the Middle Ages, cubebs and long pepper sold for a pretty penny in Europe. They were used in sweets, sauces and savories. Sauce Sarcenese (meaning "Arab") was made with almond milk and cubebs and some other spices as well. Candied cubeb--a nougat-like confection--was quite popular, too. But by the time I got active in cooking in the last quarter of the 20th century, it's safe to say that cubebs were next to nowhere to be found.

2.) They're Cool Because of Their Story
No one really knows why black pepper hit the tipping point and stayed so prominent for so many centuries while its once-popular cousins--cubebs and long pepper--were relegated to total obscurity. Best I've read was that black pepper kept better, which is logical. Both cubebs and peppercorns are in the Piperaceae family and both are berries that are dried in the sun. Cubebs are a bit bigger, not really as wrinkled, and have little tails attached to them which makes them fun to play with, very distinctive looking, and earned them an alternate name of "comet's tails." In 1640 the King of Portugal banned cubebs in order to promote black pepper, which the Portuguese, with their bases in Macao and Goa, had a better line on. Java, by contrast, was Dutch-ruled, and there cubebs, cloves, and long pepper were the prominent spices.

As with so many marvelous spices, it's kind of hard to describe what a cubeb tastes like. Imagine a cross between black pepper, allspice, and juniper berries.

Cubebs turn out to be an important ingredient in perfumes, particularly patchouli. They were, and still are, used in various cures but since I'm not a doctor and this isn't a journal on holistic medicine, I'm going to leave that alone. Cubebs were also used to spice up chewing gum. To this day they're used a lot in spirits, too, most notably Bombay Sapphire Gin. Drop a couple cubebs in the bottom of your next Bombay martini.

3.) It's a Cool Thing to Support Sustainability
I haven't yet been to Bali to visit Big Tree Farms in person, but sooner or later I'm going to get there. I already like pretty much everything about it--the people, the product they send us, the entire approach to food, the environment, the packaging, and the tradition. Ben and Blair Ripple got Big Tree going in the spring of 2000. The idea then and now was to create a positive, sustainable setting in a part of the world that's long been known for its beauty but not so much for its economic health.


Photo by Miansari66/Wikimedia

Like pretty much every meaningful piece of work I've been around, this one was no flash in the pan. "Having a vegetable farm was and is our first dream. The constant challenges of watching the sky and praying for no rain or pleading with the clouds to unleash their downpour, coaxing carrots to grow big and strong with compost, love and weeding, growing produce that is vibrant, delicious and organic will always be at our core," Ben told me. "But, we soon realized that supporting ourselves through planting carrots here in Bali was never going to work. Out of that realization came some bold new ideas."

Presented by

Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

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