Choi Jhal: Know About This Spice From Undivided Bengal

In West Bengal and Khulna – a city in Bangladesh, the choi jhal was one of the many peppers that added an element of heat to food. Along with its counterparts – black pepper, pippali or long pepper – choi jhal, or piper chaba, as it is also known, is a vine that grows up to 20 feet long. With leaves that resemble paan or betel, the choi jhal peppered Indian food with much needed spice before the Portuguese brought on the chillies. Used extensively once upon a time in undivided Bengal, the forgotten spice is still used in parts of some north-eastern states as well as Kerala.

With a lemony aroma and a sharp kick similar to horseradish, choi jhal is used as a whole – stems, skin, roots and leaves – in fish or meat curries. The brown-black bark, along with the leaves have been known to impart a distinct flavour to food and have been known to possess anti-bacterial properties. Typically in cooking, the bark of the choi jhal is peeled, before soaking the exposed stem in water for some time and slicing thinly to add to curries and stews.

Before pippali was used in spice mixes like the panch phoron or trikatu – a mix of black pepper, ginger and pippali – the choi jhal played a significant role in adding aroma and flavour to these blends. Also known to possess various medical properties to aid digestion, ease gastric pain and constipation, along with having plenty of ethno-medicinal values, the piper chilli is also known to be the ‘king of bitters’. Now considered to be an exotic ingredient, the more mature the plant becomes, the deeper flavour it imparts.

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Traditional cultivators of the choi jhal believe that the creepers growing around the moringa tree tend to have a sharper flavour than most other vines. Used especially during festive season, the choi jhal is most often cooked with mutton in traditional recipes. Consumed in both – fresh and dried forms – the roots are said to be more expensive than stems, when purchased in local Bangladeshi markets. Available all year round, the choi jhal is also referred to as the Thai long pepper and used to mute strong fishy flavours in Thai cooking.