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Keeping this situation in mind, the historical importance of black pepper as the most pungent spice available becomes more understandable. Many other spices have, at times, been tried as substitutes, but all have limitations of their own:
Xylopia is a compression from Greek xylon pikron [ξύλον πικρόν] bitter wood, aethiopica refers to the origin of the tree (though most of it grows in Ghana).
Anchor Negro pepper has been used as a pepper substitute in Europe, but with regular imports of black pepper from India starting in the 16.th century, it mostly disappeared. In later times, negro pepper was only traded as a pepper substitute (or surrogate) in times of war and short supply; the last time, it was seen from after World War II till the 60ies of the previous century. As far as I know, it is now rarely available outside of the production countries.
The term spice is often associated with hotness and pungency; in reality, though, only few plants are suited to transmit a pungent quality to the food. Furthermore it is worth noting that the prototype of all hot spices, chile, originates from the New World and thus was not available in Europe, Asia and Africa until the 16.th century, although today, food of all continents cannot be imagined without it.
Keeping this situation in mind, the historical importance of black pepper as the most pungent spice available becomes more understandable. Many other spices have, at times, been tried as substitutes, but all have limitations of their own: The pungency of onion, garlic and spices containing isothiocyanates (e. g., white mustard seeds or horseradish) does not survive cooking procedure; other spices show too little heat (grains of paradise, chaste tree) or exhibit significant bitter overtones (cubeb pepper, negro pepper). The only well-suited alternative, long pepper, was traded at even higher price than black pepper. Asian cooks, thus, resorted to fresh ginger as chief source of pungency, but this spice was not available in Europe at that time.
It is not altogether clear why humans like pungent food at all. There are numerous different explanations: Hot spices, so we read, have been used to mask the flavour of not-really-fresh ingredients; the high price of pepper made it into a symbol of wealth; culinary use of pepper came forth from previous medical use. I deem it more probable that there are sound biochemical reasons:
The body interprets hot flavour as pain and reacts by secreting pain-killers, so-called endorphins, which have analgesic functions but also show stimulating and euphoric power.
There are a few spices that produce a prickling–vibrating feel in the mouth, often followed by numbness. Although often referred to as hot or pungent, these should rather be considered a class of their own. The best known representative of that group is East Asian Sichuan pepper; other examples include Tasmanian pepper, Eurasian water pepper and South American paracress. Some cuisines use these spices in conjunction with conventional hot spices (chiefly chiles) to achieve very special culinary effects.
Anchor Main constituents
In negro pepper fruits, the essential oil (2 to 4.5%) has been found to consist of β-pinene, 1,8-cineol, α-terpineol, terpinene-4-ol, paradol, bisabolene and other terpenes. In other work, linalool (E)-β-ocimene, α-farnesene, β-pinene, α-pinene, myrtenol and β-phellandrene were found, furthermore traces of vanillin and 3-ethylphenol (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 47, 3285, 1999) (online)
Among the non-volatile constituents, tetracyclic diterpenes of the kaurane type have been identified; the kaurane structures are based on a tetracyclo[11.2.1.01,10.04,9]hexadecane skeleton. Kauranes and the structurally similar kolavanes and trachylobanes also appear in the bark.(Phytochemistry, 21, 1365, 1982), (Phytochemistry, 36, 109, 1994)
The essential oils of the stem bark (0.85%) and the leaves (0.5%) of X. aromatica have also been investigated. The bark oil consists mainly of α-pinene, trans-pinocarveol, verbenone and myrtenol and differs remarkably from the leaf oil (spathulenol, cryptone, β-caryophyllene and limonene) (Planta medica, 60, 282, 1994)
Tropical Africa (Ethiopia to Ghana), where both the species X. aethiopica and X. striata are used for local cooking. In South America, X. aromatica (burro pepper), has found similar applications among Brazilian Indios.