Aloha everyone, and I hope this post finds you well! It’s a hot, dry midsummer in Hawaii, and as always, I’m grateful to have plenty of quenching ‘awa on hand to refresh me after a hard day of work on the farm!
Long-time visitors to this blog know that besides all things kava, one of my foremost passions is reading and research; I still take every opportunity to educate myself on the history, botany and culture surrounding this wonderful plant and its origins. One thing that’s been on my mind recently is the connection between kava and its botanical relatives in the pepper genus, Piper. No species of plant or animal exists in a vaccum of course, and kava is no exception: there are over 2,000 species of peppers scattered around tropical areas of the world, including possibly the most popular spice of all time, black pepper. So I got to wondering: are there other pepper species with cultural uses as broad and significant as those of kava? The answer took me on a fascinating journey into South and Southeast Asia, where peppers have found their way into food, medicine and social settings for hundreds of years!
First of all, it’s important to establish what kinds of peppers we’re talking about. I’m writing about peppers that belong to the genus Piper, not the hot chili peppers from the Americas, which are grouped under the genus Capsicum. Although the two genii are related and both have medicinal and cultural uses, I wanted to only look at species closely related to kava kava—otherwise I could literally end up writing a book rather than an article!
All right then: Piper is a genus of climbing vines found in tropical regions of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Pepper vines usually have heart-shaped evergreen leaves and may bear fruit or flowers, although kava is sterile and can be propagated only with human help. Also interesting, while we harvest kava for her wonderful roots, most pepper species are valued for their fruits or occasionally for their leaves. Black pepper, the most popular condiment in the world, is made from the dried and ground fruits of Piper nigrum, the black pepper vine.
Piper nigrum: Those of you who go out of your way to buy whole peppercorns probably know that although black pepper is the best known type of pepper, several different condiments can be made from Piper nigrum fruits. Black peppercorns consist of the whole dried fruit (the seed plus the outer skin), while white peppercorns have had the outer pericarp, or flesh, removed. Red and green peppers are also made by pickling the ripe or unripe pepper grain. Though it’s now ubiquitous, at one time pepper was so in demand and heavily tariffed in Europe that sneaky merchants would sometimes adulterate ground pepper with linseed, mustard, flour or sago. Some even traded fake peppercorns made out of oil and clay with a bit of cayenne added—yuck!
Most people don’t think of black pepper as a health food, but research has shown that piperine—the compound in black pepper that gives it spice—increases the absorption of several nutrients from food, including vitamins A, C, and the B complex, selenium, beta-carotene, and curcumin. Black pepper has also been used directly as a stimulant and medicine for all sorts of digestive ailments, such as nausea, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, and dyspepsia. It’s thought that black pepper works to stimulate the digestive tract by acting as a mild irritant to those tissues, which is why pepper is eliminated from the diets of people about to undergo abdominal surgery. As an essential oil, black pepper is also rubefacient, meaning it increases blood flow when it’s applied topically to the skin; black pepper oil is sometimes used to break a fever by promoting sweating, and to ease pain in sore muscles and joints.
Piper longum: Much less is known about black pepper’s related species Piper longum, or long pepper. It seems to have been used less frequently in medicine and cooking than the famous black pepper. As you might expect, long pepper is named after the long green fruit casings it produces, which contain small pepper grains of a grayish color. Long pepper grains have a fiery pungent taste, but a weaker aroma than black pepper grains. Along with black pepper, long pepper was commonly used in India and Southeast Asia to flavor food before the introduction of chili peppers from the New World. It was also used as a stimulant, though Indian medicinal texts indicate it was considered inferior to black pepper. Interestingly though, the name for the genus Piper comes from the Sanskrit word for long pepper, pippali.
Piper betle: Of all the Piper species, I couldn’t find any with a history of cultural use that compared to kava — except for Piper betle: this shiny green pepper vine is traditionally harvested for its leaf, which is one ingredient of the Southeast Asian delicacy called betel nut. Despite its name, betel nut is not one plant: it is actually a type of quid made by wrapping slices of the fresh or dried nut Areca catechu in Piper betle leaves, along with a dash of edible lime (calcium hydroxide) to extract the alkaloids in both the leaf and the nut. This quid is then chewed, either on its own or with flavoring spices such as saffron, aniseed, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, mustard, and more recently chewing tobacco. Called Paan in India, this betel nut combination is chewed throughout South and Southeast Asia for a stimulant effect, produced by the arecoline in areca nut as well as the piperine alkaloid in the betel leaf. The edible lime is an essential element of this trifecta because it keeps the compounds in their alkaline form so they can be absorbed sublingually—in the process staining the saliva of a betel nut chewer blood red!
Though betel nut is the polar opposite of kava kava in terms of effects—being stimulating rather than sedating—betel chewing is just as deeply ingrained in South and Southeast Asian culture as kava is in the South Pacific. In India, betel nut has ceremonial as well as recreational uses: offerings of money made to brahmin (priests) are traditionally wrapped in a shiny green betel leaf. The Ayurvedic medicinal tradition of South Asia also lists betel nut as a remedy for expelling intestinal parasites, and it appears in the Kama Sutra as a breath freshener after washing the teeth.
In Vietnam, betel nut quids are culturally associated with ideas of love and marriage: the groom’s family offers the bride’s family betel nuts as gifts accompanying a betrothal, and the union of these two plants, areca nut and betel leaf, are symbolic of the loving harmony of marriage. I thought this was a beautiful image! There’s also a saying in Vietnam that “the betel begins the conversation”. People use it as an icebreaker to relax and be more comfortable in social situations, a parallel to kava that I couldn’t resist pointing out. After all, kava is called the “anti-shyness” herb by many aficionados in the West, and it has served as a social lubricant for my people just as betel nut has in the East.
Piper methysticum: And that, dear readers, brings us to kava kava (Piper methysticum). What can I say about this wonderful plant that hasn’t already been said? Though I am, admittedly, biased, I still think kava kava is probably the most chemically interesting plant in the Piper genus: it contains a class of compounds called kavalactones that are found in almost no other plant (one exception is rosewood, which has been found to contain small amounts of desmethoxyyangonin—but that’s a topic for another article). Kavalactones are the source of kava kava’s wonderfully anxiolytic, calming and muscle relaxing effects, which have already helped so many people combat daily stress and anxiety in their lives! Despite its differences, if you should ever doubt that kava kava is a pepper, you have only to sample the distinctive earthy, peppery spice of fresh-brewed kava to taste its connection to the other peppers of the world!
1. Grieve, M. “A Modern Herbal | Pepper”. Accessed July 9th, 2014. https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/pepper24.html.
2. “Long Pepper”. Wikipedia. Last modified July 8th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_pepper.
3. “Betel Leaf (Piper betle)”. Neurosoup. Accessed July 16th, 2014. http://www.neurosoup.com/betel-leaf-piper-betle/.