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Caper (Capparis spinosa L.)


Aramaicܒܘܛܝ, ܥܩܪ ܕܦܪܗܐ, ܩܦܪܝ
Buti, Eqar dapara, Qapri
ArmenianԿապարցախ, Կապար
Gabartsakh, Kaparcax, Gabar, Kapar
BretonKaprez, Kaprezenn
刺山柑 [chi sāan gàm]
Chi saan gam
刺山柑 [cì shān gān], 酸豆 [suān dòu]
Ci shan gan, Suan dou
CzechKapara, Kapara trnitá
EstonianTorkav kappar
FrenchCâpre, Fabagelle, Tapana
Georgianნახტომი, ხტომა
Kht’oma, Nakht’omi, Naxtomi, Xtoma
Greek (Old)Κάππαρις
Hebrewצלף קוצני
צָלָף קוֹצָנִי
Tsalaf qotsani, Zlaf kotsani
Hindiकचरा, कब्र, करेर
Kiari, Kobra, Kachra, Kabra, Karer
HungarianKaporna, Kapribogyó
Kannadaಮರಾಠಿ ಮೊಗ್ಗು
Mullukattari, Marathi Moggu
Keipeo, Keipo
LatvianDzeloņainais kapers
PolishKapar ciernisty; Kapary (plural)
ProvençalTapeno, Tapero
SerbianКапара, Капри, Каприца трновита
Kapara, Kapri, Kaprica trnovita
SpanishAlcaparra, Caparra, Tápana; Alcaparrón (caper berries)
SwahiliMruko, Mchezo
Teluguమరాఠీ మొగ్గు
Kokilakshmu, Marathi Moggu
TurkishGebre, Kapari, Kebere
UkrainianКаперці трав’янисті
Kapertsi travyanisti
Capparis spinosa: Caper buds, caper fruits
Pickled capers and caper berries
Capparis spinosa: Caper bud
Caper blossom
Capparis spinosa: Salted capers
Salt-preserved capers
Used plant part

Buds, to be harvested in the morning time imme­diately before flowering; they are never dried but pickled in oil, brine or vinegar. Less often, capers are preserved by packing in coarse salt. These must be rinsed before usage.

Smaller buds (nonpareilles and surfines, both with less than one centimeter diameter) are considered more valuable than the larger capucines and communes (more than 1.5 cm diameter).

Pickled caper fruits (French cornichon de câpres, in English also known as caper berries) are more rarely traded. Their flavour is very intensive.

Plant family

Capparidaceae (caper family); closely related to the cabbage family.

Sensory quality

The fragrance is spicy and a little bit sour (because of the pickling), the taste is slightly astringent and pungent. Caper berries have a stronger, more dominant but otherwise similar flavour.

Capparis spinosa: Caper berry
Ripening caper fruit
Capparis spinosa: Caper shrub with berries
Caper shrub with fruits

Main constitu­ents

Capers contain iso­thiocyanates and thus resemble several spices of the cabbage family (cress, black and white mustard, wasabi and horse­radish).

Obviously, pickled capers consist mainly of water (about 85%). The dry matter contains, besides bitter flavonoid glycosides, a mustard oil glycoside named glucocapparin (methyl glucosinolate), whence by enzymatic reaction the pungent principle of capers, methyl isothiocyanate, is liberated.

Of all mustard oils, methyl isothiocyanate is the most volatile and most susceptible to hydrolysis (degradation by water), especially at elevated temperature.

Capparis spinosa: Caper flower
Caper flower
Capparis spinosa: Two Caper Flowers
Caper flower

Among the fla­vonoids, rutin (named after its occurrence in rue) is the most important. The white spots often seen covering the surface of pickled capers are said to by rutin which crys­tal­lized dur­ing the pick­ling pro­ce­dure.

Although some older sources (Stobart) claim capric acid an im­por­tant con­stitu­ent of capers, newer work does not men­tion this com­pound (whose name is, by the way, not related to English caper, but derives from Latin capra goat because its strong smell).

Capparis spinosa: Caper flower
Caper flower

Capparis spinosa: Flowers of Caper
Caper flowers

The pungency of unripe caper berries is due to aliphatic iso­thiocyanates (methyl, isopropyl and sec-butyl); further­more, a pyridine alkaloid stachydrine was found.


Capers can today be found growing wild all over Medi­terranean, and are frequently cultivated (e. g., in France, Spain, Italy and Algeria; furthermore, Iran, Cyprus and Greece produce significant amounts); their origin is, though, supposed in the dry areas of Western or Central Asia.

Capparis spinosa: Caper plant with flower
Caper plant with flower


Caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to Classical Latin capparis caper. Latin capparis, in turn, was borrowed from Greek kapparis [κάππαρις], whose origin (as that of the plant) is unknown but probably West or Central Asia. Another theory links kapparis to the name of the island Cyprus (Kypros [Κύπρος]), where capers grow abun­dantly.

Names of capers in most Euro­pean languages share a common origin and are indeed quite similar, for example, Italian cappero, French câpre, Estonian kappar, Swedish kapris, Czech kapara, Russian kapersy [каперсы] and Greek kappari [κάππαρη]. In English, the word appeared first as capers, which was, however, later interpreted as a plural, and the new singular caper was backformed.

Spanish tápana and related names of the Western Medi­terranean also derive from Latin capparis, although I do not understand the details. Provençal tapeno lies behind the name tapenade for a famous French appetizer (see olive).

The botanical species name spinosa thorny refers to the many sharp thorns of the plant, which are, though, missing in some modern cultivars; the latter are often referred to as a variety var. inermis (unarmed).

Capparis spinosa: Caper flowers
Caper flowers (ornamental dwarf variety)

Capparis spinosa: Caper twig
Caper branch with flowers and blossoms

The prefix al- in Iberic names (Portu­guese alcaparra caper, Spanish alcaparrón caper berry) indicates that these names are not simply inherited from Latin, but have been borrowed from Arabic al-kabara [الكبر] the caper, where the article al has been interpreted as part of the word and thus included into the loan word. In last consequence, Arabic kabara [كبر] is, of course, related to Latin capparis.

The prefix al (sometimes el) is quite often found in loanwords of Arabic origin; most of these date back to the Arabic (Mauric) occupation of the Iberic peninsular, when European science enjoyed an enormous influx of ideas and knowledge from Arabic writers. Such words are particularly frequent in the fields of mathematics, medicine and astronomy (e. g., alkali, alcohol, alchemy, algebra, elixir, also star names like Altair or Algol); this usage demonstrates the enormous influence of Arabic science on the culture of medieval Europe. Due to the advanced Arabic medicinal lore, Arabic-derived plant names are quite common in Spanish and Portuguese. The following table gives an overview:

plant Arabic Spanish Portuguese
caper al-kabara [الكبر] alcaparrón alcaparras
caraway al-karawya [الكراويا] alcaravea alcaravia
saffloweral-usfur [العصفر]alazoraçaflor
saffronaz-zafran [الزعفران]azafránaçafrão
licorice al-(h)irq as-sus [العرق السوس] orozuz alcaçuz
lavender al-khuzama [الخزامى] alhucema alfazema
myrtle ar-raihan [الريحان] arrayán   
basilal-habaqa [الحبق]albahacaalfavaca
olive az-zaytun [الزيتون] aceituna azeitona
rosemary al-iklil al-jabal [الإكليل الجبل]    alecrim
fenugreek al-hulbah [الحلبه] alholva alforba

On the other site, unrelated plant names starting with A sometimes were changed folk-etymologically to resemble Arabic forms, e.g, almond and marjoram.

Selected Links

Indian Spices: Capers ( Ilkas und Ullis Kochecke: Kapern ( via San Marcos Growers: Caper Factsheet: Capers ( Recipe: Vitello Tonnato ( Recipe: Vitello Tonnato ( Rezept: Königsberger Klopse ( Recipe: Königsberger Klopse (

Capparis spinosa: Young caper flower
Young caper flower
Capparis spinosa: Caper branch with flowers
Caper branch with flowers
The beauty of caper flow­ers is as fragile and short-lived as that of poppy flowers, which are proverbial for their quick wilting: The delicate, cream–white petals and lively purple stamina persist only a few hours. Moreover, the flowers are rarely seen in caper gardens as the caper bud must be harvested before it opens. Never­theless, the flowers of wild caper bushes are a common sight in all countries surrounding the Medi­terranean Sea, extending even to the Sahara in North Africa and the dry regions of Central Asia, where the plant is thought to have originated.

Capers are essential for several Mediterranean cuisines and are mostly associated with Italian (and Cypriot) foods. They are mostly applied to tomato or wine sauces and fit well to poultry and fish. Furthermore, they are popular with cold meat and frequently used for Italian pizza (see oregano). Capers harmonize with most other Mediterranean spices (basil, oregano and garlic, just to name a few) and are frequently combined with pickled olives.

A famous recipe from Italy is vitello tonnato, veal in tuna-flavoured sauce (the Italian name translates to tuna-ed veal). A piece of veal shoulder is simmered in a well-flavoured mixture of vegetable broth and white wine, cut in thin slices and marinated with a special sauce, salsa tonnata. The latter is in principle an emulgated sauce of mayonnaise type (see also tarragon) made from egg yolk, white wine (or white vinegar), lemon juice and olive oil which owes its intensive flavour to a puree of canned tuna, fermented fish (anchovies) and capers. Vitello tonnato is eaten cold, typically as an appetizer or as an intermediate course.

The cuisines of Central and Northern Europe with their general preference for lightly flavoured foods have come to use capers, too; the main applications are cold dishes (fish salads, minced meat and savoury vegetable salads). Many sauces owe their special character to the addition of a few chopped capers; heating such sauces must, though, be avoided, because capers’ aroma gets quickly destroyed by higher temperature. It is best to add capers as late as possible to the sauce, when it is but lukewarm; they go well with chervil and tarragon.

Capparis spinosa: Caper Flower
Caper flower
Capparis spinosa: Caper branch with flower and fruit
Caper branch with flower and fruit

Königsber­ger Klopse (East-Prus­sian meat­balls, Keenichs­berje Koch­klepse) are a remark­able specialty named for Königs­berg, the former capital of Eastern Prussia, today called Kalinin­grad (Russia). A mixture of ground meat (veal or a combination of veal and pork seems most authentic), white bread, milk, eggs, pungent anchovies and spices (garlic, onion, horseradish, parsley) is formed into dumplings, which are carefully boiled in a well-flavoured broth and served with a creamy sauce made from cream, capers and a dash of lemon juice. The recipe has certainly somewhat a Mediterranean character by the usage of capers and anchovies; on the other side, milk and cream are commonly used in other Baltic foods. Some recipes for Königsberger Klopse replace the cream partially or totally by a very light roux.

The buds of several other pungent plants have, in poor times, been used as a substitute for capers; today, these adulterations have become very rare. True capers are easily identified by their unsymmetrical four sepals. Of all caper substitutes, nasturtium buds seem to have the most culinary merits; others, like broom and marsh marigold, are not even worth trying.

Caper ber­ries are the fruits of the caper shrub, pro­cessed in much the same way as capers. The olive- to gherkin-shaped fruits have a very strong caper flavour. Their use is not as wide­spread as the use of capers, but mostly restric­ted to Spain, which is also the main producer. The flavour of caper berries tolerates boiling much better than the flavour of caper buds, and I prefer them to regular capers whenever the food is boiled or otherwise heated, e. g., for risotto or pasta sauces.

Outside of the Mediterranean and the Caucasus mountains, capers are not much known, although the pickled fruits of some Central Asian species (e. g., Capparis aphylla) are occasionally used as flavouring in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Western India.

Capers have been introduced to Central America by the Spaniards and, accordingly, appear in some foods of México, especially in recipes with dominantly Spanish character avoiding all New World ingredients. The indigenous population has not yet adopted use of capers in any larger scale.

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