Showing posts with label peppercorns. Show all posts
Showing posts with label peppercorns. Show all posts

Nov 14, 2016

Ingredients: Pink Peppercorns

Pink peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. They are the dried fruits of two trees native to Brazil (Schinus terebinthi­folius) and Peru (Schinus molle).  Nouvelle cuisine gave rise to pink peppercorns' popularity in the 80's as a colorful garnish or a part of a decorative blend of white, black, and green peppercorns.

Popular 80's Gourmet Multicolored Peppercorn Mix
Pink pepper­corns are named for their shape not for their flavor. They are not particularly pungent, but rather mild and a bit sweet. Pink peppercorns should not be confused with the true ripe red peppercorns from the Piper nigrum vine that have a muted red or brownish hue and a distinctive peppery pungency. Both pink peppercorns and true red peppercorns are available either dried, freeze dried, or pickled in brine. True dried or freeze dried ripe red peppercorns are a very rare and expensive spice. 

Schinus molle fruit and leaves
Pink peppercorns are the dried fruits of two trees native to Brazil (Schinus terebinthi­folius) and Peru (Schinus molle).  Schinus molle is commonly known as the California peppertree, the Brazil peppertree, and the Peruvian peppertree. To add to the confusion the closely related Schinus terebinthi­folius tree is also called  Brazilian peppertree, the broadleaved peppertree, Florida holly, and Christmasberry. The Schinus genus is a member of the Anacardiaceae family which means both trees are related to cashews, pistachios, and mangoes. No sizable amount of the problematic and inflammatory uroshiols common to the Anacardiaceae family have been found in pink peppercorns. However, it is recommended that those suffering nut allergies should avoid pink peppercorns. The fruit and leaves of both Schinus Molle and Schinus terebinthi­folius have been reported to be potentially poisonous to poultry, pigs and possibly calves.

Schinus terebinthi­folius fruit and leaves

The Schinus molle tree is a common sight across California. You will commonly see them growing in groves around old Spanish missions in California. It was once mistakenly thought to be a California native before it was determined that Spanish priests and settlers brought the seeds from Peru and planted them. The Spanish prized the strong wood of the trees for use in making saddles. The long lived and prolific trees did indeed thrive in California's hot and arid climate. They have now become an invasive pest threatening native species in California, Florida, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Australia.

A Schinus molle tree breaking up the sidewalk in San Francisco
Pink peppercorn trees are actually very beautiful with graceful, willowy branches, gnarled bark, and bright red clusters of fruits. Unfortunately nothing will grow under them. You'll have a continuous carpet of semi evergreen leaves that drop year round and pink peppercorns that freely reseed EVERYWHERE. 

Textured Trunk of Schinus molle
Pink peppercorn trees also grow quite fast with their beautifully gnarled trunks reaching up to six feet in diameter. Their roots grow large and near the surface so they will break up concrete side walks and expensive in-ground swimming pools. I have fond memories of peppercorn tees in California though. No matter how hot and dry it was the peppertrees would always be bright and green. I loved the brittle crunch of pink peppercorns under foot and their light peppery fragrance. We used to make wreaths, garlands, and table centerpieces out of their brilliant red peppercorns and bright green leaves for Fall and Winter holidays. 
Gourmet Food Fad of the 80's- "Peppercorn Medley"
What do dried pink peppercorns taste like? Not much of anything really. I've heard their flavor described as delicate, fruity, berry-like, sweet, chili-like, aromatic, juniper-like, punchy, and pepper-like. Personally, I think they taste and smell faintly like black pepper with a bit of tart sweetness. I can see pink peppercorns' appeal as a colorful garnish, their mild flavor suiting fruits and fish, and their delicate crunch adding some textural interest to a dish. Those pepper medleys and mixes of pink, white, black, and green peppercorns are a bit silly in my opinion. Pink peppercorns' delicate flavor is completely lost when combined with the strong flavors of black, green, and white peppercorns. If you'd like a pepper mix with an exotic and aromatic flavor, you'd be better off replacing the pink peppercorns with allspice. Or use the traditional French spice blend quatre épices which is a varying mixture of black pepper, white pepper, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and or cinnamon. A traditional Indian garam masala would be another good choice of a pepper mix depending on the dish.
Sublime Pink Peppercorns adorning a Mint Stewed Fig nestled in Vegan White Chocolate Mousse atop a Vegan Cookie
Other than a trendy garnish I don't see much use for pink peppercorns. I think they need to go they way of other silly 80's fads like giant shoulder pads, giant hairdos, irrational exuberance, grim optimism, overt materialism, and cosmetic application that looks like warpaint. When I researched this I had no idea that pink peppercorns were related to cashews, mangoes, and pistachios and a possible problem for people suffering nut allergies. That alone would make me hesitant to serve them. If you do find yourself needing to use pink peppercorns do be advised that they break apart easily. They should be crushed with a knife or a mortar and pestle, not a pepper mill. As they are so fragile, they're better purchased in small quantities to ensure top-quality freshness.

Nov 7, 2016

Ingredients: White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

White peppercorns and black peppercorns come from the same plant, but are processed differently. White peppercorns are allowed to fully ripen on the vine and are stripped of their dark shell after soaking. Their flavor is sharper, hotter, and less complex than black peppercorns. White pepper is the pepper of choice in many Asian cuisines including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In classic Western and Indian cooking, white pepper is primarily used in light-colored dishes for aesthetic reasons.


To make white pepper the berries from the pepper vine (Piper nigrum) are picked when they are fully ripened and red. (In contrast black peppercorns are picked just when they are beginning to turn from green to yellow or pinkish.) The outer skin of fully mature red peppercorns is removed by process called retting. Retting consists of soaking the berries in water for one to two weeks until the shell loosens. The outer shell is then removed or rubbed off by various methods to reveal the cream-colored white seed. The white peppercorns are washed once again and sun-dried.

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

Although India is one of the world’s largest producers of black pepper, only a small amount of white pepper is actually produced for domestic use or sale. Compared to black pepper, good quality white pepper can fetch nearly four times more value in the international market. Using traditional methods to process white peppercorns has been fraught with problems for Indian farmers. Retting or soaking the peppercorns takes quite a bit of water and predisposes the peppercorns to fermentation, internal mold, and fungi.

White Pepper, Safed Mirch, Safed Golmirch, Shada Golmorich

The Post Harvest Technology Centre at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, developed the white peppercorn processing machine you see in the above photo in 2007. This unit mechanically processes white pepper from mature pepper berries that have undergone retting or soaking pre-treatment.  The pre-treated pepper berries are fed into the unit through a hopper into a drum that has a water jet, four nylon brushes, and a double layered metallic sieve. This provides the abrasion necessary to remove the outer shell or pericarp of the retted berries. A 1.0 hp single phase electric motor powers the device and only two people are required to operate the machine. About 120-150 kg of pre-soaked pepper berries can be processed into white peppercorns in one hour.

Piperidine- 1-[5-(1,3-Benzodioxol-5-yl)-1-oxo-2,4-pentadienyl]piperidine


White peppercorns have a sharper, hotter flavor than black peppercorns because the essential oils that provide most of the woodsy, lemony notes have been removed with the outer layer of the fruit.  The flavor of white peppercorns comes primarily from the alkaloid molecule piperine. This gives white peppercorns a far less complex flavor profile than black peppercorns. I have read descriptions of the taste of white peppercorns as lemony, citrusy, earthy, wine-like, hot, sharp, and creamy. The flavor of white peppercorns always reminds me of clam chowder, gefilte fish, and sometimes even the Meyer lemons of my native California. The scent of uncooked white pepper has a distinctive and musty barnyard odor. You can practically smell the rotting hay and horse urine. I suppose that's earthy.


In both Western and Indian cuisines white peppercorns are often used in cream or light-colored sauces where black pepper would visibly stand out. The photo above is of a black pepper flecked sauce which apparently neither Westerners nor Indians can abide. Black flecks in a white sauce denote rusticity and we can't be having that in an ethereally pale French béchamel or hollandaise sauce. Mughlai dishes such as Safed Maas (white mutton) or Rezala Chicken cannot suffer the indignity of darks flecks lurking in their silvery yet sumptuous gravies either. In northern Europe white pepper outsells black 10 to 1. The Cajuns of Louisiana use it quite a bit in their highly spiced cuisine too. There's an old Cajun cooking saying "Black pepper is for the taste, white for the heat, and red for the bite." In China, Malaysia, and Thailand white pepper is used extensively. You can taste the sharp heat of white pepper prominently in the famous Chinese 'hot and sour' soup. I love the way the Chinese and Thai use white pepper paired with fresh ginger. Interestingly, the Chinese never cook white pepper but add it at the end of cooking a dish believing that it will get bitter if heated. 

The volcanic soil of the Penja valley in the West African nation of Cameroon produces the world’s most coveted white pepper. Prized by Michelin-starred chefs it's flavor is described as musky, herbaceous, grassy, and delicate. In addition to the unique terroir of Cameroon, Penja white pepper is said to undergo a special processing technique that doesn't promote fermentation. This supposedly prevents the bitter, harsh, or 'off' taste that inferior white peppercorns may have. The Penja white peppercorn owes its rise to fame to French entrepreneur Erwann De Kerros, who came across a farm while traveling in Cameroon in 1992. Mr De Kerros stayed for four years, and began sending chefs and culinary journalists samples of his discovery. Today, Mr De Kerros runs Terre Exotique, a well-known spice company with almost $10 million in revenue. Among Mr De Kerros’ customers are the posh spice shop La Boîte in New York City and the luxury department store Harrods in London. Incidentally, I also saw this product on sale on Amazon for $13.95 for 80g. Apparently the price Penja white pepper has recently precipitously dropped for some reason from about $35 per 80g in 2015.

I'm pretty sure most of us have not sampled Penja white peppercorns but we probably have tasted the more mundane Indonesian varieties Sarawak and Muntok. These are what you'll commonly find at most grocery stores and spice shops worldwide. When buying white peppercorns it's best to buy them whole and grind them as needed. White peppercorns' flavor quickly dissipates after grinding just like black peppercorns. Store them away from direct sunlight in an airtight container and they should be good for about a year. I'm really not that fond of the flavor of white pepper except for in fish or seafood dishes. Perhaps I should try adding it at the end of cooking like the Chinese do? I've never found white pepper to develop a bitter taste with cooking. I have found you do have to be careful how much you use though, a little too much and it's sharpness will easily take over an entire dish. White pepper does NOT mellow out with cooking as black pepper does.
The only way I've seen white pepper sold in India: powdered.
Evidently I'm not alone in my dislike of white pepper. Supposedly there was an ongoing feud between the famed french chef Jacques Pepin and the iconic American chef Julia Child over the use of white pepper. Ms Child used white pepper for aesthetic reasons, while Mr Pepin hated the stuff and used black pepper only. Mr Pepin was even willing to suffer black specks in his béchamel!

Oct 25, 2016

Ingredients: Szechuan Peppercorns, Sichuan Peppercorns, Timur, Teppal, Thirpal, Tippal, Thingye, Hua Jiao


Szechuan peppercorns, also called timur, teppal, thirpal, tippal, thingye,  jiao, and sansho are all taste sensations like none other in the spice world. Used in cuisines throughout Asia their flavor isn’t spicy, but rather lemony, citric, and woody. Instead of heat, they incite a tingly numbness or fizzing feeling in the mouth. Despite the name, the reddish-brown husks are not related to black pepper. Different species with varying nuances of flavor are used in the cuisines of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, and India.


The term Sichuan or Szechuan peppercorns refers to the spice obtained form a group of closely related plants of the genus Zantho­xylum. In Asia, most members of this genus are found in the Himalayan region as well as central, southern, and eastern Asia. The various species are all deciduous and prefer full sun or partial shade in hot areas. They range in size from multi-trunked trees around twenty feet in height to small woody shrubs. Leaves are leathery, pinnately compound, and green in color. The plant seems to prefer poor, well drained, rocky soils and is often planted for erosion control on steep bans and roadsides.


The Zantho­xylum genus all have very large thorns and are related to citrus as well as the tree known as 'prickly ash' in the United States. Some species are dioecious requiring both a male and female tree to produce fruit while some species are self-fertilizing and monoecious. Berries ripen and turn to a bright red in early Autumn.


The berries are sun dried which causes their pericarps or shells to split open and a seed to be exposed. The aroma, flavor, and pungency of the spice is only found in the fruit wall or pericarp of the fruit not in the black seeds. The seeds are purported to be bitter, hard, and gravel-like and so are usually removed. The exception is the Korean variety Z. schinifolium whose aromatic seeds are preferred for usage in cooking. The leaves of various species are also edible with a flavor similar to mint and lime in flavor and used in some of the cuisines of China and Japan.


Szechuan peppercorns were banned from import into the United States in 1968 for fear they could possibly carry the bacteria responsible for citrus canker and infect citrus trees. The ban was lifted in 2005 with the condition that all Szechuan peppercorns be roasted at 158F to kill the bacteria before entering the United States. 
Hydroxy-alpha sanshool is the molecule found in plants from the genus Zanthoxylum believed to be responsible for the numbing, tingling sensations of the spice. The compound's name is derived from the Japanese term for the Sichuan pepper, sanshō (literally mountain pepper). Though the chemical structure is similar to that of capsaicin (the substance that causes the sensation of burning heat in chilis), the mechanism of action by which hydroxy-alpha sanshool induces sensations has been a matter of debate. Apparently, sanshool causes a vibrational sensation equivalent to 50 taps per second rather than the heat or burning associated with pepper or chilis. According to a study at a prestigious university in London, the sensation caused by eating Szechuan peppercorns feels exactly the same as pressing a vibrator to your lips. To some this sensation can feel like the fizziness in a carbonated drink, a buzzing feeling, or touching your tongue to a battery.


There more than 250 species in the genus Zantho­xylum across Asia. Each have the same essential flavor characteristics but vary slightly in nuance. The pericarp pictured in the upper left is from the Himalayan species Z. alatum or armamatum, it is the most pungent species with a cassia-like aroma and is used Tibetan and Nepali cooking. On the upper right is the the Indonesian variety Z. acanthopodium, which is used in the Indonesian cuisine and is said to have a strong lime-like taste. At the lower left is the south Indian variety called tirphal from the species Z. rhetsa which has a delicate flavor and is used alone to flavor certain fish dishes. On the lower right is the famous Chinese Szechuan pepper called jiao from the species Z. piperitum/simulans. Jiao is an ingredient in the traditional five spice pow­der​ and is traditionally used in combinatiion with black pepper and red chilis in the fiery cuisine of the Szechuan region.
 

My experience tasting the spice:
In Nepal the local variety f this spice is called timur. Upon procuring some at the local market I placed one of the timur peppercorns in my mouth.  It started out with a pungent yet pleasant citric, lemony, black pepper, and slightly woodsy flavor. Immediately after that I felt something like the fizzing of 'pop rocks' candy in my mouth. Soon it grew more intense and I started to drool. After about two minutes a strong acid taste appeared and the fizzing sensation became nauseatingly overbearing. This was like having a mouthful of battery acid and weapons grade pop rocks. My eyes began watering and I began to retch so I finally spit the darned thing out. The fizzy sensation turned to numbness and an acrid flavor remained for about 5 minutes even after rinsing my mouth with water and milk. I deduced from this experiment that sparingly and dry roasted must be the key to effectively using timur in foodstuffs.

Nepali momos served with achar

It seems the higher in altitude and farther east you go in the Himalayas the more timur is used as a primary spice. In Nepal timur is used in pickles, savory curries, spice mixes, noodle dishes, and chutneys. The national dish of Tibet is the momo, a dumpling filled with stuffing made from vegetables, cheese, or meat and spiced with garlic, ginger, onion, and timur. Momos are quite popular in Nepal too and are always served with a spicy red dipping chutney made with just a little pinch of timur. Tibetan cuisine also makes use of the combination of hot red chilis with timur as is done in the Szechuan province of China. The Tibetan word for timur or Szechuan peppercorns is is g-yer ma. Tibet shares a border with the Szechuan region so that's not too surprising. The spicy Tibetan noodle dish called malaphing is served in yak broth seasoned with red chili paste, garlic, dark sesame oil, and ground timur - quite similar to any boiled noodle dish you'd be served in Szechuan.

Spiced, smoked, dried, buffalo meat called secuti.
What do you do with all the meat when you've sacrificed a water buffalo and you've no refrigeration? Well, here in Nepal you slice it thinly and marinate it with timur, salt, and red chili powder and smoke it! Above you can see a packet for sale at our local market of spiced, smoked, and dried buffalo meat called sukuti. It is the Nepali version of jerky. On the label it's called a 'special meat snack' and I have seen it eaten out of hand as such. I've also seen pieces boiled with greens for a simple soup too.

The eternal hipster, Johnny Depp simultaneously symbolizing all things radically fresh, raw, and noble.
Looks like Kim Kardashian's makeup artist did his contouring and eyeliner today.
What is that bold, brash, citrusy, and peppery opening note in the new and controversial men's fragrance by Dior called Sauvage? Why it's Szechuan peppercorns! I immediately recognized it at first sniff. I love the aroma of Szechuan peppercorns and have often thought their brisk and pungent aroma would make a great uplifting spa fragrance or men's cologne. I've been to Szechuan restaurants that actually scent their dining rooms with the tantalizing fragrance of Szechuan peppercorns dry roasted with rock salt. Apparently a significant amount of Westerners find Sauvage's scent too harsh and supposedly synthetic. I think Westerners are just unfamiliar with the naturally bright and brash fragrance of Szechuan peppercorns. You know how most human beings are, anything we don't immediately recognize makes us uncomfortable and we don't like being uncomfortable. The coupling of Szechuan peppercorns with Calabrian bergamot as in Sauvage really amps up it's fresh floral and hesperidic facets. Fret not though, that rip roaring opening mellows out in about a half an hour and a warm, woodsy, Ambroxan base comes forward that lasts for hours. I rather like Sauvage and think it's a brilliant, modern, minimalistic interpretation of classic masculine fragrance. The perfumer's description and advertising tagline for the fragrance is radically fresh, raw, and noble. I'd agree Sauvage fills the brief but an actor who is most famous for playing a Disney pirate hardly seems radical, fresh, raw, nor noble. Clive Owen or Daniel Craig would have been my picks.

Szechuan peppercorns are best purchased whole and ground as needed. When stored in an airtight container away from sunlight the whole peppercorns seem to last indefinitely. Dry roasting this spice mellows it and brings out it's aromatic flavor. Dry roast in a heavy frying pan or on a baking sheet in the oven for 3-4 minutes. When the peppercorns get hot they will begin to smoke so watch them carefully and remove any burnt berries. Allow to cool and then grind. Roast and grind in small batches as the flavor dissipates quickly. Try a little dry roasted and ground mixed with salt for a zingy rub for red meat or sprinkle a little atop your favorite savory curry as the Nepalis do for an exotic taste treat.

Oct 13, 2016

Ingredients: Black Pepper, Kali Mirch, Gol Mirch, Gulki, Marts, Marich


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.
In late spring, the vine produces pendulous spikes of tiny white flowers which develop into clusters of 50 to 100 small green berries. As the berries ripen they turn yellow and eventually become a rosy red. A single stem will bear 20 to 30 fruiting spikes.


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 from the South Indian city of Tellicherry (now knoown as Thalassery) are considered the finest quality in the world. What makes the flavor of Tellicherry peppercorns so superior? Their bright freshness is described as being reminiscent of citrus, pine, or fruit is perfectly balanced with a sweet heat. This gives peppercorns from Tellicherry a superior complexity in aroma and flavor than rivals from other regions. The lack of the bitterness or earthiness found in other black pepper varieties also distinguishes Tellicherry peppercorns.


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!

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