History of Pepper
|Plant with ripening pepper berries|
In spite of its astronomical price, pepper has been much used by the Romans (see Silphion on Roman cuisine) and became, in the Early Middle Ages, a status symbol of fine cookery. At this time, the Italian town of Venezia had monopolized trade with the Arabs to the same extent as the Arabs theirs with the Indian producers. Due to this double monopoly, comparatively few cooks in Europe could afford pepper at all; but when Europe’s economical situation stabilized in the 15.th century, increasing demand for pepper led to the Age of Exploration. European sailors then tried to reach India and to obtain the spice directly from the producers, bypassing both the Arab and the Venetian monopolists.
At the end of the 15.th century, Portuguese seafarers changed the medieval view of the world: In 1487, Bartholomeu Diaz surrounded the Cape of Good Hope, thereby proving that Africa was not an impregnable obstacle on the Way to the East; only eleven years later, his countryman Vasco da Gama reached India, founded several Portuguese outposts and established permanent trade relations to local rulers. From this moment on, Lisboa, not Venezia, was the spice metropolis of Europe; of course, prices were not reduced but the profit just shifted to another country (100 years later, profits shifted again, this time to Amsterdam). Portugal’s colonies in South and Southeast Asia persisted until the second half of the 20.th century, even after the spice business had been lost to England and the Netherlands.
|Pepper with unripe fruits|
In the meantime, the Spaniards also tried their luck in seafaring: Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian who found support for his unconventional plans at the Spanish court, discovered what he had not searched for in 1492 and again eleven years later Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the American continent at the Isthmus of Panamá, thereby reaching the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, it was also a Spanish enterprise to explore this new ocean and thereby to circumvent the earth: Fernão de Magalhães, Portuguese by birth, is usually given credit for this task, although he himself did not survive the journey, but was slain in a conflict with natives of the Philippines. After all, Spanish success was poor in Asia (the Philippines remained the only Spanish colony in the East), and although the larger part of America quickly fell under Spanish dominion, Spain could never assume a significant rôle in the spice trade, allspice and vanilla being the only profitable spices from the New World.
Pepper production was long confined to a small region in India (Malabar, in the
South of India’s West coast). Because of the expensive transport, but even more
because of the effective monopoly first of Arabs and Venetians, then of the
Portuguese and at last of the British, price remained rather high, and
consumers in Europe were sometimes forced to use pepper substitutes. Of these,
the Mediterranean chaste tree berries and the two
African spices grains of paradise and negro pepper have lost all importance and are rarely
traded at all in our days; similarly, the Mediterranean myrtle berries did not meet much approval. In
Central Europe, the native water pepper has
occasionally been used to substitute pepper in times of economic shortage,
but it is not grown and produced any longer. As a side note on history, German
cooks resorted to savory during the years of
In centuries past, long pepper, a close relative of black pepper from India, and cubeb pepper from Jawa, have been common in European cooking; today, they have fallen into oblivion in Western countries, but are still much in use in India and Northern Africa, respectively. Sichuan pepper from China and Japan and pink pepper from South America, although still not too common, have become more popular in the last decades in Western cookery; maybe, the same will happen to Tasmanian pepper.
Another pungent spice, chiles from Central and
South America, was first introduced as a pepper substitute in European cuisine,
but has now gained much popularity all over the world, because of its stronger
pungency and easy growing. Today, chiles are the prototypical
hot spice, and
their production, usage and trade exceed those of real pepper. See also negro pepper for a comparison between several hot
and pungent spices.
Types of Peppercorns: Black, White, Green, Red
|Pickled red and green pepper corns|
|White, black, green and red dried peppercorns (300 dpi scan)|
Pepper is unique in the spice universe as the pepper fruits are marketed in four different versions: They can be processed to give black, white, green and red peppercorns. By choosing time of harvest and postprocessing method carefully, all four types could, in principle, be produced from the same pepper plant.
Black pepper is the fruits of pepper harvested unripe but not far from ripeness, and dried at moderately elevated temperature. A typical scheme is plucking the whole pepper spike in the moment when the very first berry starts turning red and storing the berries over night at room temperature; in some places, the berries are dipped into boiling water to provide a quick surface disinfection. Under these circumstances, fermentation takes place, and the formerly green pepper fruits turn black, similar to the fermentation of tea leaves. With the next day, the drying procedure starts, still often in direct sunlight without the help of electric dehydrators. Black pepper is produced in all pepper producing countries.
The later pepper is picked, the better its flavour will
however, does not increase much in the last days of ripening. Waiting too
long, however, is not an option, because ripe pepper fruits cannot
be let fermented in the usual way, as their sugar content would allow for
rotting. The latest moment to produce black pepper is when the fruits turn
yellow–orange; pepper made from these almost ripe berries has a particularly
good flavour. Such black pepper is produced only in India, and it is traded
as Tellicherry pepper. Its corns are larger than typical black
pepper corns, and their colour is not so much black than a dark and warm
brown. They are slightly more expensive to compensate for the increased
risk of loss to hungry birds or unfavourable weather.
|Peppercorns of varying ripeness are drying to yield black pepper|
Fully ripened pepper fruits are used to make white pepper.
For that purpose, the outer hull (exocarp, mesocarp) must be removed. Note that
the mesocarp not only contains the sugar, but also a part of the volatile
aroma compounds; the pungency is located in the endocarp only. The usual way
of processing is soaking the berries for about one week, preferably in
slow-running water. After that time, the mesocarp disintegrates and can
be separated mechanically from the kernel (endocarp).
The remainder, mainly the seed grain, is then dried and sold as white pepper.
White pepper retains the full pungency
of black pepper, but it has an altered flavour due to partial loss of aroma
compounds. White pepper is significantly more expensive than black pepper,
on one hand in compensation of the high risk to lose an entire harvest to
changing weather, and on the other hand for the extra work involved.
Pepper plant growing on a support tree
© Josh Weber
In Madagascar, another way of processing pepper was developed:
is early-harvested pepper, far from ripening, that is processed in a way to
exclude fermentation. This is achieved by pickling the freshly harvested
pepper corns in salt or vinegar, or by quick drying at elevated temperature
or in a vacuum (lyophilization). Because of its unripeness, green pepper has
only small pungency and a fresh, herbal,
The same kind of pickling procedure can also be applied to ripe pepper fruits; in that case, their colour is retained, and one arrives at red pepper. This kind of pepper (red peppercorn) is a rather rare item; it is considerably more pungent and aromatic than green pepper, and it combines the spicy, mature flavour of black pepper with the fresh notes of green pepper. The natural sweetness of fresh red peppercorns is lost in the process of pickling, though.
Dried red peppercorns are even harder to find, and are to my knowledge, only produced by one single company in Kerala (Southern India). With respect to pungency and fragrance, they are similar to good black pepper, but they also feature a sugary sweet taste, which makes them unique in the pepper world. To produce them, the ripe peppercorns have to be harvested at the right time, and the drying procedure must be fast and suppress fermentation to preserve the colour. Another goal is to to prevent the separation of the outer hull from the kernel (which would give white pepper plus brown rubbish). Red pepper must not be confused with pink pepper, which stems from an entirely different plant and has little peppery quality; it is available both dried and (more rarely) pickled.
It is quite remarkable that, although four different colours of
peppers are in existence, black pepper still dominates in production
Red pepper has no importance whatsoever; it is mainly an exotic curiosity.
Green pepper is used mostly in Western cooking, where it often goes into
mustard (white mustard) or bottled
condiments. It is the pepper to use for pepper steak and several sauces
to accompany broiled or fried meats. Pickled green peppercorns are
often used as a spicy garnish to cold foods. Dried green peppercorns
are very aromatic, but at the same time have less pungency; this makes them
useful for delicate dishes for which the heavy pungency of
black pepper would be disastrous. For my feeling, they are sadly
underrated among European cooks.
Unripe Pepper fruits and leaf
www.botany.hawaii.edu © Gerald Carr
Fresh green pepper, which is not always easy to come by in Western countries, enjoys increasing popularity in pepper producing countries, particularly in Thailand. It is very good in Thai stir fries, and can be used in Thai curry pastes (see coconut). Pickled green peppercorns are too acidic to be used as substitute, but soaked dried green peppercorns can be used if the fresh are unavailable.
Also white pepper is mainly used in Western cooking. It is often suggested for white (cream-based) sauces where black pepper could spoil the colour; sauce Béchamel is a typical example (see nutmeg). It is also used whenever pungency takes predominance over pepper flavour; for example, ground white pepper is well suited to adjust a taste in the last moment, as it can give certain pungency without marked changes in aroma and fragrance; black pepper may be unsuited because of its intensive fragrance which reduces only after a prolonged cooking time.
An example of a traditional European dish that uses white pepper is
gefilte fish [געפֿילטע פֿיש]
which is a specialty of the now almost extinct Yiddish cooking
(Germany, Poland and Ukraine). The original recipe was complicated and
reserved for festive occasions: Deboned fish meat (commonly carp), boiled
onions and hard boiled eggs were ground to a smooth paste and seasoned with
white pepper. The fish farce was then carefully stuffed back into the fish
skins, and the
re-filled fish boiled cautiosly in a flavourful broth
made from fish bones, carrots and onion, often
augmented with some herbs (parsley,
celery). In our days, the recipe is usually
simplified, and the fish farce is just shaped into balls and cooked in the
broth. Gefilte fish is usually served cold, together with the
gelatinized broth and sometimes a pungent paste made from red beets and
Due to the price drops in the pepper trade of the late 20.th century, pepper
has become available in several Far Eastern kitchens. While black pepper
dominates the (still small) pepper market in South East Asia, the East Asian
countries often have a preference for white pepper. Its only mildly aromatic
pungency has become popular in Japan, where white pepper is often used as an
alternative to the local variety of Sichuan pepper
in marinades for meats. Chinese cooking does not use pepper much (except black
peppercorns to flavour stocks), yet there is a handfull of recipes with a
strong pepper flavour. An example of the latter type is
hot and sour soup (suanla tang [酸辣湯])
(see sesame). For these pepper-accented dishes,
white pepper is used if available.
Culinary Usage of Black Pepper
Black pepper is by far the most used type of peppercorns. It is widely employed in almost all cuisines of the world. Since pepper cultivation has much increased lately and new plantations spread to remote locations, black pepper is continually introduced into cooking styles that did not use much pepper before, mainly for reasons of expense. For example, Thai cooking has not only developed a likening for fresh unripe pepper berries, but also uses black pepper to a larger extent that before when it was an expensive import commodity. Black pepper is particularly popular for comparatively mild stews as preferred in the cuisine of the Royal Thai Court.
Also the Vietnamese use now much more black pepper than a few decades ago,
since Vietnamese pepper production is now well-established.
It is added to long-simmered soups (see Vietnamese
cinnamon for North Vietnamese and Vietnamese
coriander for South Vietnamese soups) and appears quite often as a
table condiment. In Cambodia, black pepper is part of the ubiquitous table
condiment tik marij, a mixture of lime juice, salt and freshly ground pepper.
Ironically, black pepper is little used in the cuisines
of Malaysia and Indonesia, although these are the oldest production
areas outside of India.
|Hard to believe: This pepper vine thrives in the Mahabharat mountains of Nepal!|
In India, black pepper is widely used but plays no special rôle; it is just one more member of the large spice pantheon, often used as a minor component of garam masala [गरम मसाला, گرم مسالحہ]; this also applies to the pepper producing areas of South India, and to the South Indian spice blend sambar podi [சாம்பார் பொடி] (see cumin and coriander, respectively). The Anglo–Indian curry powder may also contain ground pepper among its many ingredients (see curry leaves).
Strong pepper accents are, however, found in the regional cooking of the Rajasthan state.
There, generous amounts of black peppercorns lend a special taste to
Rather than following the common Indian practice, Sri Lankan cooking quite often makes use of black pepper as a main spice,
creating an interesting contrast to other foods which owe their heat
to chiles. For examples, some vegetable curries are spiced with black pepper and no chile, and the same is true
of the colonial-influenced vegetable-stuffed pastry generally known as rolls. Another example is the so-called
Black pepper can be used for nearly every kind of dish — some even
like it for sweets! The combination of ripe strawberries and green pepper is
almost a classic in European cooking (and a spicy strawberry risotto tastes as
excellent as it sounds weird), but a pinch of pepper can well be used
for other mild fruits, and results in a particularly
Pepper appears in several well-known or not-so-well-known spice mixtures. In
West Asia, it is used cautiously, as in some Turkish and Syrian spice blends.
Georgian khmeli-suneli (see blue fenugreek) is mostly a mix of dried herbs, but also contais a few percent of pepper.
On the other side, Georgians use pepper in masses as a table condiment, for example with the national favourite
khinkali (khink’ali [ქინკალი]),
a type of stuffed and steamed pasta that is often coated in nose-
(bittara appa [බිත්තර ආප්ප]),
a dome-shaped bread whose dough contains coconut milk; before cooking, it is topped with a raw egg and sprinkeld with
coarse black pepper.
exotic, special touch.
Fruits salads are a good field to play with pepper; you need not go as far as
the Indonesians, who prepare a chile-hot fruit
salad called rujak (see mango).
High-quality dark chocolate enhanced with a dash of black pepper has recently
appeared on the European market, and I find this a very attractive combination.
Peppered sweetmeats were pretty common in ancient Greece and Rome, at least for
those who could afford (see also poppy); a few
such recipes are still found in current European cuisines, e. g., Italian
panforte or some variants of German Lebkuchen.
Pepper plants, sterile
Pepper sprinkler for power users – seen in Georgia
contains little besides black pepper and allspice.
must not be confused with exotic Indonesian lemon pepper, a variety of