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.
The word pepper is derived from the Sanskrit word for long pepper, pippali. The ancient Greeks and Latin speakers turned pippali into the Greek word peperi and the Latin word piper. The Romans referred both to black pepper and long pepper as piper, as they erroneously believed that both of these spices were derived from the same plant. The names of pepper in almost all European languages are derived from the Latin root piper. Examples include Old English pipor which has evolved to pepper in modern English, Czech pepř, French poivre, German Pfeffer, Finnish pippuri, Ukrainian perets, and Yiddish fefer. In South Asia, the word for black pepper is derived from the Sanskrit root marichan. The modern Hindi word mirch meaning chili or pepper comes from this root. In Urdu and Hindi black pepper is called kali mirch (literally black pepper) or gol mirch (literally round pepper). In Kashmiri black pepper is called marts and in Nepali it is called marich staying closer to the Sanskrit root.
|A black pepper farm in a forest in Southern India.|
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a tropical, perennial vine in the family Piperaceae. Climbing with aerial roots the vine can grow to over thirty feet high. At maturity the vine sports glossy, green heart shaped alternate leaves. The leaves have a sweetly aromatic flavor and are edible also. In India and some parts of Southeast Asia the leaves are used to wrap betel nuts, making the slightly narcotic mouth freshener called paan. Black pepper vines need a a warm, wet, tropical climate and a well drained loamy soil rich in minerals and organic matter. Vines can yield for up to forty years. The plants are propagated by cuttings which are rooted and tied to rough barked trees or trellises.
|Black pepper vines growing up brick trellises at a pepper plantation in Viet Nam.|
Black pepper is produced from the berries of the pepper vine when they have grown to full size but still remain green. Since clusters mature at different times, harvesting from can take place over several months.
The green berries are dried in the sun or by machine for several days. Traditionally, they are separated by hand and laid out on woven mats to dry in the hot sun. Some commercial growers speed the process up by dipping the berries in hot water and using a kiln to dry them. During the drying process an enzyme in the outer shell of the peppercorn is activated. This enzyme causes oxidation in the outer shell turning it black and creating a volatile oil containing piperine and oleoresins. The volatile oil is what gives black peppercorns their characteristic heat, pungency, and robust complexity of flavor.
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!