On a recent pilgrimage to The Meadow in Portland, I spotted, amongst the jars of specialty pepper, a single container filled with unusual dark brown pods. I had never heard of this spice labeled "Selim Kili," and the shop guy professed he hadn't used it, either. (Owner Mark Bitterman was out of town, or I'm sure he could have enlightened us!) Thoroughly intrigued, I had to procure the jar for myself and give it a try.
Known variously as Selim Kili, Grains of Selim, African pepper, Negro pepper, Kimba pepper, Kani pepper, Moor pepper, Kili pepper, Sénégal pepper, Ethiopian pepper, and Guinea pepper, these woody pods are the fruit of the Xylopia aethiopica tree, which primarily grows in the African savanna. The pods contain between one and eight shiny, hard black seeds and are smoked during the drying process, which gives them a deep, musky fragrance (reminiscent of beef jerky!).
According to The Meadow's website, Selim Kili tastes like "a mixture of cubeb pepper and nutmeg, with a note of resin. It has a very sharp, aromatic, pungent taste with a slightly bitter aftertaste." I found that the pods are more flavorful and easily ground than the seeds, although the seeds are not without merit.
I'm not sure this is traditional, but I have been separating the two, grinding the pod with a mortar and pestle, and using this powder like pepper. (The seeds I've been saving for some future use.) Although Selim Kili is less pungent than true pepper, it adds a smoky, aromatic flavor to the bean dishes I have been cooking lately. Once the weather turns cooler, I will also try crushing the pods and using them in a bouquet garni for stew.
Have you ever used Selim Kili?
• Buy it: Selim Kili at The Meadow
(Image: Emily Ho)