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."

The bold new ideas were to find the traditional products of Bali that could be grown sustainably and then brought to the rest of the world. It started with the sea salt--something everyone who cooked on the island crowed about but which was still about as secret as could be to the rest of world. After that came long pepper (we've got these as well, and I'm a big fan), then honeys, palm sugars and now, of course, cubebs.

4.) t's Cool Because They're So Darned Old
Cubebs have a very long history. They came to China during the Tang (unrelated to the name of the 1970's drink powder) Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries) but were used almost exclusively for medicine. From there they went to India where they got the name Chinese Cubebs. They've been well known in Europe since at least Greek times. They were extensively used across North Africa--the Latin cubeb comes from the Arabic quibbes--for medicine as well as for making meals more interesting. They're written up in 1,001 Nights as a remedy, either to fight infertility or as an aphrodisiac. In Europe people thought cubebs would fight demons of all sorts. Oh yeah, cubebs are high on the list of hoodoo cures and potions. Hoodoo is a traditional African American folk magic. It's way out of my expertise, but I know do know it's also called "conjure," that Zora Neale Hurston writes about it, and that it uses lots of potions and herbs, including cubebs, which the hoodoo call "love berries" because... well, you can figure it out on your own.

5.) It's a Cool Thing Because the Flavor Is So Unique
As with so many marvelous spices, it's kind of hard to describe what a cubeb tastes like. Having learned now that it's in Bombay Sapphire gin, I can almost imagine it in there without even tasting. Imagine a cross between black pepper, allspice, and juniper berries. Their flavor is inversely proportional to the smallness of their size because they have a lot of oil--8 to 10 percent per 'beb.

Cubebs go very well with the sweetness of dried fruit. I like dipping pieces of dried dates into ground cubeb. Pretty much any meat would probably be marvelous rubbed with ground cubeb, or with them crushed in a meat-based soup, sauce or marinade. Lamb for sure would be great, maybe long cooked in a stew with peppers, olive oil and some honey. You could see where cubebs could be this really interesting little bridge between the sweet and the savory. In sweets, I can imagine them making a positive difference in panforte, lebkuchen, pfeffernusse, and other spiced sweets of medieval origin. Cubebs are used a lot in Indonesian curries. They're one of those things that you throw into a complex culinary setting that adds character and that no one can ever pick out. Paula Wolfert, who's studied the food and cooking of the Mediterranean for decades, told me about a Moroccan tagine of beef, garlic, dried apricots, dates, preserved lemons, all slowly cooked with a bunch of cubebs for at least a couple of hours.