Black Pepper - History
The "king of spices" has proven to be one of the most notable factors influencing human culture throughout history. Native to southern India, this spice has been cultivated and used in that area since the start of recorded history. Evidence of the use of pepper can be found in almost every major civilization since that time.
Peppercorns were gathered by hand from the tropical forests that cover the Malabar coast and sold on the nearby shores to merchant ships destined for the area. This coastal market quickly gained popularity as the sole source of this "black gold." Peppercorns themselves were commonly used as trade currency in the absence of any standard coin. As one of the pioneering trade cultures and possessing the strongest navy in the world during their time, the Portugese developed new trade routes with the sole intention of procuring and monopolizing trade of this precious spice. Due to the presence of these far reaching trade routes, Piper nigrum was transported and planted in many tropical climates around the world.
Due to the high costs of trading between Europe and India, black pepper became a sought after luxury and a symbol of elite class status during the period of the Roman Empire and continuing all the way through the Middle Ages. Discovering new paths to obtain the spices and riches of the "Orient" became the driving force behind discovery of the Americas by Portugese sailors and the monarchy of Spain.
Scientific classification information can be found here >>
Design: Adam Haggerty - UW La Crosse - Last modified 4/16/2011
THE LARGEST PRODUCER OF PEPPER IN THE WORLD
India is the largest producer of pepper in the world, producing 50% of all pepper. The best pepper still comes from the monsoon forests of Kerala, on the Malabar Coast, and two of its celebrated varieties are Malabar Garbled and Tellichery Extra bold. The word “pepper” is derived from the Sanskrit word pippali or pippalii, which became the Greek word péperi and then the Latin piper.
Some interesting facts about pepper:
- Sixteenth century sea merchants subjected their employees to a “no pocket and no cuffs” dress code to prevent them from stealing peppercorns, the most valuable commodity on board because pepper was more valuable than gold.
- It was possible to pay rent and debts in peppercorns.
- Dowries often consisted, in part, of pepper.
- Government officials accepted pepper bribes for legislative favors and used it in turn to lure prospective voters.
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum L.) Oils
Mansurah A. Abdulazeez , . Abdulmalik S. Abdullahi , in Essential Oils in Food Preservation, Flavor and Safety , 2016
Black pepper ( Piper nigrum L.) is one of the most widely used spices, and the constituent parts of its essential oil contribute to its value. Although traditionally used as a culinary ingredient, fragrant aromatic, and medicine, it is presently used in the food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries. The recognition of the antioxidant and antimicrobial properties of the essential oil of black pepper fostered research and proposals for its potential use as a natural food preservative. This is because existing methods of food preservation involving the use of synthetic preservatives have been reported to have undesirable effects on health and sometimes do not completely eliminate microorganisms. Essential oil of black pepper has been used to preserve orange juice and pork. Also its effect on meat spoilage organisms has been extensively studied, prompting the call for further studies and its subsequent adoption as a natural preservative.
There's Black History in Every Pinch of Kitchen Pepper
At the dawn of the first millennium, traders took to the seas of the Far East, India, and Africa to fill an insatiable hunger for a particular kind of speciē—what the Romans called an item of value. Eventually the name for the bounty they sought evolved from specie to spices, and cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, cardamom, clove, ginger, mint, basil, and others made their way westward via in the ships of East African traders who led the Red Sea spice trade.
With each stop in each harbor town, the spices were eagerly accepted by kings and their subjects alike. Cooks experimented and creatively blended the precious flavorings to concoct mixes that became the hallmarks of each regional cuisine—the berbere of East Africa, the masalas of India, ras al hanout in Morocco, and baharat in the Middle East, to name a few.
By the 15 th century, Europeans, hungry for the flavors controlled by the old empires, began the aggressive search for faster trade routes. Columbus brought Caribbean vanilla, chile peppers that had originated in Mexico, and allspice from Jamaica back to Spain, where these ingredients joined the spice mixes that European cooks were already blending.
In the English-speaking world, these new East-meets-Caribbean spice mixes were ubiquitously called “kitchen pepper.” The recipes were not codified until the 1700s, when they first began appearing in early cookbooks. Common ingredients included “Jamaica Pepper” or allspice, as well as cinnamon, nutmeg, and West Indies orange peel. Together, these ingredients became part of an aggressive triangular trade that centered on spice, sugar, and enslaved human beings.
As part of this brutal colonial system, the North American colonies had the world’s spice market at their disposal. As a result, the blend that made up their kitchen pepper was always evolving. From the American South all the way up to Philadelphia and the New England colonies, the Far Eastern and Caribbean influence on the kitchen pepper used by American housewives—and, just as often, their enslaved cooks—was keenly felt.
Every cook’s kitchen pepper varied according to their own taste and the taste of those for whom they cooked. In 18 th century Philadelphia, the free African-American cook Polly Haine may have used allspice in the Caribbean Pepper Pot soup she was famous for James Hemmings, the French-trained cook enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, may have used black pepper prodigiously in his mix, following the French style of the day. Hercules Posey, the cook enslaved by George Washington, might have used a mix with nutmeg, which was a go-to spice in the English cuisine that much of American cooking was based upon.
Kitchen pepper remains part of American culinary life, although we may not call it by that name. Barbecue rubs and salt-free seasoning blends available from major spice companies, as well as other seasoning mixes created at home and tailored to the cook’s own preference, all reside in the realm of kitchen pepper. My own uses equal amounts of ground celery seed, sweet paprika, ginger and garlic powders, plus half as much cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg, as well as chile or cayenne pepper, in homage to my Trinidadian heritage. A dash of cloves and an equal measure of coarse salt as all the other spices combined round out the mix.
Dontavius Williams, a living history enactor who portrays Adam, an enslaved blacksmith and cook, at historic sites such as Virginia’s Stratford Hall and Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation, created his own variety of kitchen pepper as part of his historic foodways work.
Adam’s Kitchen Pepper, which is available for purchase online, is more than a flavoring—it’s an access point to the exploration of erased aspects of American history.
“The triangular trade wasn’t just about getting those spices, but about buying and selling people,” Williams says. “The traders had to be sure the cargo they were bringing—those human beings—survived the three-month trip. It was good business to allow them to bring and use their own spices and foods to keep them alive and valuable.”
Williams’s blend is salt-free, in part for health reasons: The Black community is disproportionately affected by diseases such as hypertension that are affected by salt intake. Williams also says that a superior blend doesn’t need salt for flavor. He uses his kitchen pepper widely: in the dredging mix for fried chicken, in rubs for grilled meats, enhancing stews and flavoring the stock for soups.
“Enslaved artisans put their own special touches in their work in order to set them apart. Their artistry gave them a better chance of being valued—and possibly of keeping their families together,” he notes. “For example, at Monticello, James Hemings was very valuable to Jefferson, and this gave him some leverage to negotiate his freedom. Of course, that was a fine line—because if you were that good, you could be held in bondage forever. You wanted to be good enough to get leverage but not so good that it hurt you.”
Once an integral part of the American culinary experience, kitchen pepper has been too long absent from the discussion of the world’s great spice mixes. Its time has come to join the ranks of India’s fragrant masalas, the togarashi of Japan, French herbes de provence and others—not just for flavor, but for the history imbued in every sprinkle.
Even when the world was not ready for my family’s unique masala, the kitchen was a welcoming place to showcase our identity.
In my own kitchen, spices have long been the plot points in my story as a cook and as a multi-ethnic American. The flavors in my kitchen (including the rare ingredients of my father’s Trinidadian heritage—particularly items like the vanilla-scented tonka bean, which isn’t readily available in America—or the precious saffron so integral to my Persian mother’s experiences) are not only ways to elevate my cooking, but to demonstrate pride of culture. Even when the world was not ready for my family’s unique masala, the kitchen was a welcoming place to showcase our identity. Like Williams’s blend, the kitchen pepper I’ve created is a triple duty spice mix—it’s a favorite for typically “American” dishes like meatloaf that transitions nicely for use in Persian kebabs. Quickly sautéed vegetables benefit from a dash of my mix, as do long-simmering stews in the West Indian style.
A good kitchen pepper is balanced enough that it can guide the main flavor profile of the dish or recede into the background as a supporting character. For Dontavius Williams, though, kitchen pepper’s cultural value is just as important as its flavor. “I’m an ordained minister, so I handle this work like I would handle a holy sacrament,” he says. “I feel that I’m being trusted by those who went before. My intention,” he notes, “is to create opportunities to amplify our ancestors, and to put them out front because these people have been largely forgotten. The country would just as soon not tell their story.”
Black Pepper Flavor Profile
There is a distinct and undeniable earthiness to the flavor of black pepper, one that is woody, piney, and sharp all at the same time. Black pepper also has a unique pungent taste all its own and is both biting and hot to average and refined palettes alike.
Contrary to popular belief, pepper is not intended to be used like salt. Salt is an additive that enhances the flavor of a dish—in fact, nearly every dish (including baked goods like cookies and pies) contains at least a pinch of salt. Black pepper, however, is not a flavor enhancer but a spice. This is a little-known distinction, but it’s an important one to be aware of whether you’re a casual cook or a budding chef.
History & Folklore
Black pepper, nicknamed as &lsquoblack gold&rsquo and the &lsquoking of spices&rsquo, is the most important and widely consumed spice in the world. Pepper has grown in India for thousands of years and was first introduced to the West after the global conquests of Alexander the Great (4th century BC). Pepper was so precious in ancient times that it was used as money to pay taxes, tributes, dowries, and rent. It was weighed like gold and used as a common medium of exchange. In AD 410, when Rome was captured, 3,000 pounds of pepper were demanded as ransom.
Pepper was used in ancient Roman cuisine and became a status symbol of fine medieval European cookery. In fact, pepper was so popular in Europe that it helped fuel the age of age of exploration (AD 15th century). For centuries, pepper was only grown in a small region of India (Malabar), and throughout history different cultures held a monopoly on the trade (Arabs, Venetians, Portuguese, and British). In an attempt to establish direct trade with Indian pepper plantations, Christopher Columbus inadvertently stumbled upon the Americas and consequently mislabeled the native inhabitants as &ldquoIndians&rdquo. It is interesting to note that a completely unrelated species (chili peppers from the Capsicum family) are referred to as &ldquored pepper&rdquo. Chili peppers, which are native to the Americas, were originally introduced to Europe as a substitute for black pepper due to their pungent flavor (1).
Flavor Story: Pure Ground Black Pepper
Ground black pepper adds an earthy kick and sharp aroma when blended into soups and stews, sprinkled on omelets or rubbed on meat to season it before cooking. It&rsquos an essential spice, beloved around the world, with a place of honor by the stove and on the table. Among hot spices, black pepper delivers only a fraction of the heat you get from chili peppers. That subtle bite means it plays well with many other ingredients, enhancing, but rarely overpowering other flavors. Black pepper is a must-have for bakers, too, and appears in recipes for biscuits, breads, cake and cookies. The aroma of this culinary must-have should set your nose tingling.
- Pepper is a favorite seasoning the world over. But it rarely takes center stage. A few examples where it gets star billing are pepper-crusted French steak au poivre, stir-fried Chinese pepper steak and Italian chicken diavolo, or devil&rsquos chicken.
- Indian cooks use ground black pepper to add a layer of heat to curries, rubs and marinades that also include chili pepper. Mexican cooks, too, double-down on the heat by including both chili peppers and black pepper.
- Black pepper mellows with cooking. That&rsquos one reason why the pepper shaker on the table is so important. A dash of ground pepper, applied as each diner likes, will perk up any quick- or slow-cooked meal.
- Black pepper&rsquos sharpness is a perfect complement for the richness of beef. Salt and pepper alone can elevate a grilled steak, hamburger or beef stew. Blend with additional spices&mdashrosemary, thyme, cumin, garlic&mdashfor even more flavor.
- Pepper is your ally for creating a flavorful coating for chicken tenders or pork medallions without deep frying. To make the coating, stir plenty of ground pepper, paprika and a bit of salt into flour. Dredge the meat in the flour and then pan sauté until cooked through. Kids will love them!
- Pastry chefs in fine dining restaurants include black pepper in all kinds of desserts. It&rsquos an especially delicious surprise in chocolate sweets, from fudge brownies and chocolate layer cake to chocolate truffles.
Q: If I don&rsquot have ground black pepper on hand, what makes a good substitute?
A: Any black pepper&mdashfrom freshly ground peppercorns to coarse ground black pepper&mdashwill work. You may need a bit more, as these forms of pepper are not as finely ground. Taste as you go. If you have no black pepper of any kind in the pantry, you can substitute white pepper or a dash of red pepper, also called cayenne. Red pepper is chili pepper and much hotter than black or white pepper, so use a light hand.
Did you know that black, white and green peppercorns are the same berry? They taste very different from one another, but it&rsquos true! They all come from an evergreen vine called Piper nigrum, native to India&rsquos Malabar Coast. Black and green peppercorns are harvested before the berries ripen. Black pepper is dried in the sun and the green berries are pickled. White peppercorns are picked when the berries are fully ripe. The outer husk is removed to reveal the grayish white berry within, which is then dried. Who knew so many seasonings could come from a single plant?
**After salt, pepper is the most frequently used spice in the world. It is an ingredient that is found in almost every savory (not as many sweet) recipes and it can be found on every dinner table in America.
**Most cuisines from around the world use peppercorns in one or more of their colors/forms in their food. India, for example, uses black peppercorns profusely. It is an important ingredient in India’s spice blend called ‘garam masala’ as well as many Indian food recipes.
**The Middle East uses black peppercorns as a key ingredient in their spice mix called ‘baharat’.
**The French prefer white pepper, and use it in their cream-based sauces. They also grind white and black peppercorns together in a spice blend called ‘mignonette’.
**In America, black peppercorns are not only an important condiment found on most dinner tables, but it is also an important ingredient in Cajun and Creole recipes.
**I encourage you to buy different colors of peppercorns and figure out which one you like best. Each one has a slightly different taste to it. Please note, however, that the chemical compound called ‘piperine’, which has strong medicinal benefits, is most abundant in black peppercorns, so if you desire the health benefits of peppercorns, you might want to stick with black ones.
**Black pepper is simply one of the most useful culinary spices. Most people do not mind the taste of pepper, even if they are picky about other spices. Many meals can be salvaged simply by adding a good dose of black pepper to it.
**Black pepper also has a unique talent of helping increase the tastes, aromas, and even medicinal benefits of other spices in a dish. It complements ALL spices (click here to my list of other spices).
**At the end of the day, black pepper can be added to almost any kind of food: red meat, game, seafood, beans, lentils, berries, apples, pears, cheese, soups, stews, poultry, and the list goes on.
**Here are a few recipes that I have found for inspiration on using more peppercorns:
**Like with most spices that I have researched so far, for the best taste and the maximum health benefit, it is best to buy whole peppercorns and grind them as needed. Once pepper is ground, it begins to lose its’ piperine as well as other important volatile oils. It also begins to lose its’ flavor.
**The best black peppercorns are large, black or dark brown, and have a dull look. If it is shiny, it usually means that it is an inferior product. You can usually buy black peppercorns at your local stores in whole, cracked, or ground form. If you have to buy ground pepper, make sure it is not too black: this means that it is an inferior product. Instead, your ground black pepper should have both white and black specks in it.
**White peppercorns are most often sold whole, and green or pink/red peppercorns are usually either dried or in a brine solution. The best dried green peppercorns are freeze-dried. They should be plump and very bright green. Both green and pink peppercorns are too soft to be ground in a peppermill. They will most likely clog your peppermill if you try to grind them like this. If you purchase green or pink peppercorns in a brine solution, you should use them within two weeks of opening.
**Whole black peppercorns will keep indefinitely if placed in a cool, dark place. Make sure to use keep whole peppercorns in a metal, glass, or if necessary a plastic peppermill and NOT a wood one. Wood peppermills will leach peppercorns of their oils over time.
**There are also fake pink peppercorns from Brazil that are often confused with true pink/red peppercorns. They do not come from the same plant and you should make sure if you purchase pink/red peppercorns, that it has the name of the true pepper plant (Piper nigrum) on the container.
Other spices sought to capitalize on pepper’s popularity by co-opting its name. This name-borrowing was mostly contained to other spices with a similar piquant bite, but “pink peppercorns” adopted it solely because they were roughly the same shape and size.
A similar impulse was at work with the naming of the New World capsicum plant family, now better known as chili peppers. These fleshy fruits, ranging in hotness from the mild bell pepper to the fiery habanero and beyond, originated in South and Central America, but were so quickly and thoroughly adapted by cultures around the world that many people are confused about their origins.
Along with vanilla and allspice, the Old World’s discovery of what we today call “chili peppers” or “hot peppers” marked a new era in the spice trade, one in which New World goods added to the spices coming out of India, China, and the Maluku Islands (a.k.a., the Spice Islands). And the capsicums were given the familiar name “pepper” because of their heat. The doctor on Christopher Columbus’s ship called the fruits “Indian peppers.” His letter home describes the first taste of the pungent “wild fruits” that his men, “not very prudently,” tasted: “Upon only touching them with their tongues, their contenances [sic] became inflamed, and such great heat and pain followed, that they seemed to be mad.”
Pink pepper is a berry in the cashew family that’s roughly the same size as black peppercorns. It has a pleasantly sweet, bright, and fruity depth of flavor, and a little friendly heat. It brings a refreshing flavor to meat dishes, especially when used in conjunction with black pepper in game and poultry dishes. Used alone, its mild character nicely seasons blander foods like eggs, chicken, and white fish. Pink pepper is used to great effect as a flavor in chocolate, and it has been gaining popularity in ice cream. Its color is beloved by chefs for adding a splash of pretty crimson to light-colored sauces and as a garnish. Bartenders, too, use it to add an attractive element to drinks, especially to enhance the appearance of pink and red drinks.
This ruby of the spice world has a fragile outer shell that crumbles easily, and, as such, you shouldn’t place it in a black pepper grinder, as the grinder’s mechanism is too forceful. Instead, it should be crumbled by hand or gently ground in a mortar and pestle.
Grains of Paradise
Grains of paradise may get their name from shrewd merchants who capitalized on pepper’s mystical, far-away origins: A popular tale in the ancient world and Europe’s Dark Ages described pepper and other spices as flowing out of paradise in a river of spice. Grains of paradise come from West Africa and are also known as ossame and melegueta pepper. They taste like a spicier, more cardamom-forward version of black pepper, with a hint of sweet ginger and cinnamon, plus a dash of citrus. If this sounds like a lot of flavors in one little seed, it is, and the wide-ranging flavor profile makes the grains a versatile addition to your spice rack. They can be used wherever you would use black pepper for a rounder, almost buttery version of black pepper’s signature sharpness. Try grains of paradise on steak and burgers or on roasted vegetables, or, really, in any dish you’d normally sprinkle with pepper.
Sichuan pepper has long been a staple of Chinese cooking. It doesn’t taste much like black pepper, but its distinct numbing property somewhat mimics true pepper’s heat. It’s also very aromatic. Sichuan’s numbing spiciness makes it a natural addition to hot fried chicken and other dishes where hot spice is at the forefront, like chili sauces, kung pao chicken and tofu, and dry-rubbed meats. Sichuan works especially well when used in conjunction with flavors that will cool and soothe Sichuan’s sting think yogurt sauces for dipping spicy Xi'an-style chicken wings, and mint salads to go on top of a steak or lamb rubbed with a Sichuan-peppercorn-heavy seasoning.
Sansho pepper is Sichuan pepper’s Japanese cousin, and it produces an even stronger numbing, tingling sensation on the tongue. Like Sichuan pepper, sansho is often added to already spicy seasonings, can make almost any rice dish more interesting, and is called upon to cut fatty flavors in pork, eel, and rich mushrooms. Its electric sensation is gaining in popularity as a condiment for ramen, too.