Often called the "king of spices," black pepper is has a long history of use as a spice, a preservative, and even as currency. The history of black pepper is the history of the spice trade. By far the most widely seasoning in the world, black pepper adds it's pungent and aromatic warmth to dishes in nearly every cuisine. Originating in India's southern coastal region of Malabar, black pepper has been making it's way westward for over 2,000 years.
|A black pepper farm in a forest in Southern India.|
|Black pepper vines growing up brick trellises at a pepper plantation in Viet Nam.|
All black pepper is not the same. There's no shortage of places to get your black pepper from in modern times. Being the world's most popular spice it is grown all across the narrow, 15-degree band around the equator called the spice regions. There are over 75 cultivars of black pepper in India alone. As of 2013, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper producing 34% of the world's black pepper crop. Varieties from Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Ecuador and Brazil are available also. As with wine grapes or other fruits and vegetables, the terroir or sun, rainfall, and minerals in the soil of the region where the black pepper is grown affects the flavor and aroma of black pepper.
Black peppercorns are best bought whole. Black pepper begins to lose flavor as soon as it is ground. The volatile oils responsible for black peppers' complex blend of heat and pungency soon dissipate after grinding. For peak flavor grind pepper only as you need it. A peppermill or a mortar and pestle make grinding fresh black pepper a simple task. Whole black peppercorns will keep their flavor almost indefinitely if stored away from sunlight and heat. Good quality black peppercorns should also be uniform in size and dark in color.
While a shaker full of black pepper is a common sight on Western dining tables in most South Asian cuisines black pepper plays no special role. With a few exceptions black pepper is simply another member of the vast pantheon of spices the Subcontinent enjoys. Black pepper is a common minor ingredient the spice mixes of garam masala, South Indian sambar podi, and Anglo-Indian curry powders. You may occasionally see mangos and watermelon eaten with a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper to intensify their flavor in India. You might even see lassi, a cold yogurt drink, made with black pepper. In the Winter an extra dash of black pepper may accompany fresh ginger in masala chai as it is considered warming to the body. Only in Rajasthani, Sri Lankan, and Chettinad cuisines is black pepper used as the main spice rather than an accent in dishes. Personally, I put a bit of black pepper into every savory dish as well as my wintertime cuppa chai!