A highly flavoursome pepper substitute, ubiquitous across Africa
There is a good chance that you have never heard of a selim pepper, even if you pride yourself on possessing an extensive (and rather expensive) knowledge of the spice world. This is because it has more than the necessary amount of nom de plumes, also going by the names African pepper, hwentia, the rather poetic grains of Selim, uda pods, Guinea pepper, kimba pepper and Kani pepper, among many others. It is also not technically a pepper, but a spice whose qualities have led it to commonly be used as a pepper substitute, in countries across the African continent.
“It is a very interesting spice,” says James from Spice Mountain “because it has a really unusual flavour profile. There are three distinct notes: intense cardamom, a very raw and unrefined black pepper flavour and there is this sherbet-like acidity, but without the sweetness. There is a certain raw, unrefined taste to it—it’s rough around the edges, more like something you would find growing wild. They are big, bold flavours.”
Because the tree that the pods grow on is found in all parts of the continent, from rain forests to the savannah, selim pepper is used in a wide variety of ways. In West Africa, the dried fruit is typically lightly crushed before being tied in a bouquet garni and added to soups. In Senegal, the whole green fruit is often smoked, giving the spice a sticky consistency as well as smoky taste, while in some coastal areas it is pounded in a pestle and mortar, as the basis of a paste that is used as a rub for fish.
“Selim is not particularly hot but it is very highly spiced, which is why it is used a lot in big stews, but you could definitely incorporate them into other things,” James continues. “I suggested it to a mixologist who shops here and he was really interested, especially as the nature of the pods means that they infuse their flavours into other things very well. In fact, I used to just pop one in my mouth. It has a spicy, really energetic feel,” James continues.
“But one of the interesting things is that if you break them open, the seeds have a bitter flavour which is actually very different to that of the pod. Some people take them out but many just throw the whole lot in, because the bitterness gives the spice a nice balance.”
According to James, selim peppers are a very popular spice, especially among people who know African cuisine—“they are one of those spices that give dishes an authentic African flavour”—and if you don’t, they are great for the adventurous cook to experiment with. “It contains familiar flavours, but with a slightly different twist. Use them instead of cardamom, black pepper or both. They are definitely worth giving a try.”