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Black pepper (piper nigum) is the world's most widely used spice. Today the world consumes as much black pepper as all other spices combined. It is used to prepare just about every kind of dish, including desserts.
Black pepper corns are the sun-dried fruit of the pepper vine. Pepper grows on climbing evergreen perennials that grow on slender spikes. New plants are produced from cuttings and are planted near trees or poles for support. In pepper plantations they are generally grown on wooden poles. Pepper plants are sometimes interspersed in tea and coffee plantations. In two to five years the plants begin to produce flowers that yield small green berries resembling bunches of tiny grapes. As the berries ripen they begin to turn yellowish red in color. Pepper plants live for as long as forty years. They require long and heavy rainy seasons, fairly high temperatures and partial shade for best growth.
Peppercorns are available in varying sizes, aroma and pungency. The aroma comes from essential oils while the pungency in pepper is due to the presence of an alkaloid called piperine. Pepper is marketed in four different colors: black, white, red and green. It is interesting to note that all four varieties can be harvested from the same pepper plant by changing the time of harvest and processing method.
To produce black pepper, the berries are picked when they just start to turn yellow. Sun-drying the pepper berries just before they are fully ripe produces the prized variety. At this stage the berries have an orange-yellow color and excellent flavor. The less potent white pepper comes from the same fruit that is picked when it is riper. The lighter color is accomplished by removing the outer skin of the berries. The skinless berries are sun-dried to produce white pepper. It has a different flavor but it retains the pungency of black pepper. When pepper is harvested early, pickled in salt or vinegar and then dried at high temperatures or in a vacuum, it becomes green pepper. Green pepper is highly aromatic with almost an herbal flavor, but less pungent. When the same kind of processing is applied to fully ripe berries, it yields red peppercorns.
Black pepper is indigenous to the rain forests of Kerala in southwestern India. Today pepper is cultivated in most tropical regions of the world. There are pepper plantations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. India and Indonesia together produce about half of the pepper traded in the world markets. Kerala accounts for about 95% of the pepper farmland and 97% of the pepper production in India. Kochi ( Cochin) in Kerala is the major pepper trade center in India.
Modern pepper trade grades the spice based on its country of origin. The Indian grades are Malabar and Thalasseri (Tellicherry) and they are very aromatic. Pepper plants in Indonesia produce smaller berries. They are grayish black in color and have lesser aroma, compared to Indian pepper. Pepper from Malaysia is mild and fruity. Brazilian pepper is very mild in taste.
History of pepper
Pepper reigned as the master spice from its earliest usage about 4,000 years ago. Ocean trade between South India and South East Asia was prevalent in the early centuries, which facilitated the transplantation of pepper. It commanded great respect and practically changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of ancient trade and conquest. Pepper has a colorful history as it followed the trade routes from India to the west.
During the early pre-Christian era the Arabs transported spices, incense, and oils from the East by land as well as through the Persian Gulf to Arabia. South Arabia became the great spice emporium of the ancient world. Around 116 B.C., under Ptolemy VII’s reign, a Greek sailor managed to sail with the winds and reach India's southwest coast, marking the beginnings of a thriving Greek, and later Roman spice trade. Roman ships left in July, at the height of the monsoon season and returned back with the reverse northwest monsoons in November. Roman traders thought that black pepper was a variety of long pepper (piper longum, called pippali in Sanskrit, one of the most valuable Indian exports of ancient times) and named it "peperi", and in Latin it became piper nigum.
The Roman trade began to weaken during the 3rd century A.D. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arabs held the control of spice trade for a long time. By this time Venice had become a great sea power and controlled the Adriatic Sea. Arab traders took their merchandise to Alexandria and the Venetians dominated in the distribution of pepper and other spices from the Mid-east to Western Europe. With these virtual monopolies pepper prices skyrocketed and only the rich were able to afford it. Pepper was sold for exorbitant prices all over Western Europe.
The higher prices frustrated other European nations and the great explorers of the Renaissance began their quest for a new source of pepper. During the latter half of 15th century the Spanish and the Portuguese built stronger ships and ventured abroad in search of a new ocean route to the spice producing countries of the east. The famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerala in 1498 A.D. That marked the beginning of the Portuguese dominance of the lucrative spice trade from India and totally ended the Arab and Venetian monopoly of pepper trade. In the following years, Lisbon became one of the wealthiest towns of Europe. The Portuguese transplanted pepper to tropical regions under their control.
The Dutch, after gaining their freedom from Spain in the 16th century, made their first voyages to the East Indies. By 1663 A.D. the Dutch gained trade supremacy in the east by defeating the Portuguese. Conflict erupted between the Dutch and English in the following years and the English East India Company eventually broke a 200-year Dutch monopoly. Today the monopolies are long broken and black pepper is freely traded in world commodity markets.
The consumption of pepper grew astonishingly in the days of the Roman Empire and pepper became the most typical spice in medieval Europe. It was a status symbol of fine cookery and a description of a lavish feast invariably mentioned pepper, if not other spices. Pepper reigned as a paramount spice for several centuries. The rise of French cuisine during the 17th century A.D. put an end to over-spicing of food and milder spices and herbs slowly replaced black pepper. The price of pepper dropped dramatically with the decrease in demand. Despite the precipitous drop in its price pepper continues to remain a favorite spice.
Black Pepper Soup
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons of black peppercorns
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 cup of curry leaves (available at Indian grocers)
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon of vegetable, corn or canola oil
2 medium size tomatoes, cubed and seeded
3 fresh serrano or Thai green chilies, cut into thin strips (reduce for milder taste)
1 medium sized onion, cut into thin long slices
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, thinly chopped
In a medium size pot, mix the tamarind paste with four cups of water, add salt and turmeric powder and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for six to eight minutes. Using a mortar and pestle or food processor crush the peppercorns, cumin seeds and curry leaves. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy bottomed skillet and sauté the crushed ingredients for three to four minutes over medium heat. Add the cubed tomato pieces and green chili strips to it and sauté for another minute or two. Combine it with the simmering tamarind water and stir well. Simmer for five minutes until tomatoes are cooked. Sauté the onion slices in a teaspoon of oil until they are slightly browned.
Remove the soup from the stove and garnish with sautéed onions and chopped cilantro leaves. Serve hot or warm. Traditionally this soup is served with boiled plain rice and fried pappadams.
Makes 4 Servings
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.