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Black Pepper: The King of Spices

One nibble of a pepper-encrusted claw and my lips began to tingle.  A few more bites and my eyes were watering, my nose streaming, my mouth aflame—but I could not stop.  The incendiary heat of the cracked black pepper paired with the sweetness of the crabmeat was irresistible.  That March night in Singapore, ten years past, sizzling black pepper crab launched me on a journey into the heart of darkness—or, at least, into the essence of black pepper.

Pepper is the universal spice, the one you must master if you are going to call yourself a cook.  In Food, the world’s wittiest culinary encyclopedia, the celebrated author Waverly Root observed, “Take pepper into your mouth, and its first report to your palate is that you are dealing with a spice; only after that does it reveal to you which spice it is.”  So perfectly does pepper typify the dried berries, bark, seeds and roots that we use to season our food that it was long ago dubbed the King of Spices.  For thousands of years, cooks around the globe have reached for the shriveled, sun-blacked fruit of the piper nigrum vine to bring food on the stove roaringly to life. Pepper has the power to transform, to give our lives, as an old Merovingian text notes, “a savor more intense.”  In so doing, it has become the spice that steered the course of history. 

Centuries ago, pepper was rare.  It grew in India, a fabled land so remote that by the time the spice trickled into the Mediterranean, it was as valuable as gold.  The ancient Romans were mad for pepper, paying such exorbitant prices that the historian Pliny complained that “100 million sestertii a year,” all Rome’s wealth, was flowing towards the East. When Alaric, King of the Visigoths, laid siege to Rome in 408 AD, he demanded a ransom of gold, silver and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns.  In the Middle Ages, peppercorns were the measure of a man’s wealth and status.  The rich kept their pepper in locked chests, bringing it out for lavish banquets, using it to pay taxes, dowries, even bribes.  A poor man was said to have “no pepper.”  Still to this day, the British use the term “peppercorn rent,” though in a modern twist, it now means a small, purely symbolic rent such as the pound of pepper paid annually to the Duchy of Cornwall.    

In the sixteenth century, the lust for spices spurred the Age of Exploration.  At a time when most Europeans were subsisting on a straitened diet, an ounce of fragrant black pepper could command as much as an ounce of gold.  Vasco da Gama and other daring sea captains forged perilous new routes to the East, seeking to break Venice’s grip on the fabulously lucrative spice trade.  Waves of invaders—Portuguese, Spanish. English, Dutch, and French—vied for the regions that later became India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, shedding oceans of blood as they assembled far flung colonial empires.  By the end of the eighteenth century, America, accidentally discovered when Columbus failed in his own quest for a route to the East Indies, dominated the pepper trade.  Its speedy clipper ships carried tons of pepper from Sumatra to the port of Salem, creating vast new fortunes, one of which founded Yale University.  In the end, of course, colonialism collapsed, a victim of its own ruthlessness.  A host of new nation states arose in Asia, but by that time, the allure of spices was on the wane. 

The Unstable Business of Pepper

Today the world is awash in pepper—and it is neither rare nor costly.  Global pepper production has more than tripled since 1970, from 100 to 327 million metric tons in 2003.  India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brazil are the biggest producers, but pepper is also grown around the world in places from Sri Lanka, Thailand, and China to Madagascar, Nigeria, Australia and Guatemala.  Even the tiny Pacific island of Ponape in Micronesia grows pepper, mostly for the tourist trade.   

America is the world’s biggest importer of black pepper.  Although the price fluctuates  with droughts and floods, a worldwide glut means that pepper sells for a pittance, at least in the commodity market.  Last year the U.S. imported 51 million kilos of whole black peppercorns at an average price of just $1.59 per kilo, less than a nickel an ounce.  No longer worth its weight in gold, that ounce of pepper may still cost upwards of $2.00 by the time it reaches the supermarket—for the consumer, a whopping 4,000 percent increase. 

For centuries India was the world’s leading producer of black pepper.  The Malabar coast, located in the southwestern state of Kerala, has always had the requisite conditions for growing premium pepper: tropical heat, monsoon rains, and iron-rich laterite soil.  Extra-large, robustly flavored Tellicherry peppercorns have long been considered the ne plus ultra of black pepper; the smaller, but still richly aromatic Malabar peppercorn is the most highly rated mass market pepper. 

Traditionally, India’s main competition came from Indonesia and Malaysia.  Sarawak black peppercorns, grown on the Malaysian side of Borneo, have a delicate, almost toasty flavor; its highly regarded, creamy white peppercorns are favored by connoisseurs in Japan and Western Europe for their distinctively winey taste.  From Indonesia come small, fruity-tasting Lampong peppercorns grown in southeastern Sumatra.  White Muntok peppercorns, produced on the island of Bangka are known for their heat and lightly fermented flavor. 

The rather insular community of pepper growers went haywire in the 1990s, when farmers in Brazil and Vietnam began ripping up forest and farmland and planting thousands of acres of high-yielding pepper vines.  Vietnam, which now produces one- third of the world’s pepper, exported just 7,400 metric tons in 1993.  By 2003, exports had soared to 75,000 metric tons.  Brazilian pepper exports have more than doubled in the same time period.  Although the two countries have flooded the market, driving prices through the floor, they are still new to the game; neither yet  produces a high quality peppercorn.   

In 2001, India’s Financial Express reported that desperate Indian traders were mixing their own high grade Malabar peppercorns with cheap Brazilian pepper just to stay in the game.  “The day of the quality conscious buyer is over,” lamented one trader.  “Being a quality seller does not pay.”  In fact, this is an old ploy.  Even in the days of ancient Rome, unscrupulous vendors mixed expensive pepper with less costly juniper berries.  But it highlights a real dilemma faced by pepper growers and traders in the 21st century.  There two types of pepper markets, one in which pepper is sold as a commodity,  and price and cleanliness are the deciding factors; and another, much smaller gourmet market in which premium peppercorns command prices that reflect their superior flavor and aroma.   It is the premium market with which we are concerned.     

One Vine, Three Peppercorns

All peppercorns are not created equal.  As with wine, the terroir—the soil, the sun, the rainfall and especially the minerals—of the region in which pepper is grown affects its flavor and aroma.  And like wine, the vine matters.  Pepper is the fruit of the piper nigrum , a tropical vine which flourishes in a narrow, 15-degree band around the equator, in places where the sun is hot and monsoons can bring over 100 inches of rain per year.  There are over 75 cultivars in India alone, which vary in oleoresin and piperine content—that is fragrance and pungency. 

Pepper happens to grow best in the kind of soil along India’s Malabar coast—a loamy, red “laterite” soil produced by eons of decaying rock and laden with iron and other minerals.  So it is not surprising that the world’s best pepper comes from this region—Tellicherry pepper, which is grown north of Kochi (Cochin), and Malabar pepper, once known as Alleppy, which is grown to the south.  In Kerala, pepper is ubiquitous.  Along the coast, vines in homestead plots clamber up the trunks of palm and eucalyptus trees.  In the inland valleys, it is cultivated in commercial plantations and in the high hills, pepper can be found under shade trees, merrily growing alongside coffee, tea and cardamom at elevations of 3,000 feet.    

The vine has shiny, vibrant green, heart-shaped leaves which have a sweetly aromatic flavor; in India and some parts of Southeast Asia, the leaves are used to wrap betel nuts, making a tasty, slightly narcotic chew.   In late spring, it produces tiny white flowers which develop into dangling clusters of 50 to 100 small green berries that turn yellow as they ripen, eventually becoming deep, rosy red.  Since clusters mature at different times, harvesting from the same vine can take place over several months. 

Ancient botanists thought that black and white peppercorns came from different plants, a misconception that lasted for centuries.  The truth is that black, white and green peppercorns all come from the same vine.   Differences in color—and nuances of flavor and aroma—are the result of distinctly different harvesting and processing methods 

Black peppercorns are plucked when the berries have grown to full size, but are still green.  Traditionally, they are laid out on woven mats to dry in the hot sun, although some growers now use kilns.  As Ian Hemphill, a well-traveled Sydney-based spice merchant, explains in his encyclopedic Spice and Herb Bible, “an enzyme in the pericarp [outer shell] of the peppercorn is activated; it oxidises to turn them black and among other pungent principals, a volatile oil containing piperine is created, along with oleoresins which contribute to the total complex, mouthwatering fragrance and robust flavour of black peppercorns.”   

White peppercorns are a trickier business.  They must be left on the vine until the berries have fully ripened, turning deep pink or red—a risky procedure, since untimely rain or too much sun  can ruin the crop.  The ripe berries are packed into burlap bags and placed in cool running water for one to two weeks.  After the outer shell softens and separates from the hard inner core, the peppercorns are rubbed and washed until the pericarp comes off, then are dried either in the sun or in kilns.  Either way the resulting peppercorn is pale in color—not white, but shades of cream or beige—and hot in flavor, since all traces of the blackening enzyme and the aromatic pericarp  have been removed.  

Green peppercorns are unripe berries which are harvested as soon as they reach their mature size.  To keep them from turning black, they are either soaked and packed in brine, or immersed in boiling water for 15 minutes and dried in the sun.  Either way, the blackening enzyme is destroyed and the peppercorns keep their pale green color and characteristic “fresh” green flavor.  Green peppercorns are available dried or packed in brine.  Freeze dried green peppercorns, which plump up in liquid, can be used whole in cooking. 

True pink peppercorns are rare even where pepper is grown.  Plucked when very red and ripe, the clusters of berries are used at once or packed in brine to preserve their color. The “pink peppercorns”  we know in the West are usually not pepper at all, but the fruit of the Schinus tree which is native to South America.  Also grown on the French island of Reunion and in Australia, these rosy-hued berries were once used by Peruvian Indians to add a kick to fermented beverages.  The dried berries can be sweet, astringent, or even resinous.  In America and in Europe, their appeal is largely aesthetic, as they are used to add color to mixtures of black, white and green peppercorns.   

Why Pepper Tastes ... Peppery

If you crunch a single black peppercorn between your teeth, your tongue will telegraph one word to your brain: “Fire!”  The burning sensation is caused by pepper’s “pungent principles”—alkaloid irritants, chiefly piperine, but also chavacine and piperidine—which are found primarily within the hard, inner core of the peppercorn.  These irritants stimulate pain receptors on the tongue, causing blood vessels under the skin to dilate; as blood rushes to the surface, your tongue begins to tingle and burn.  If you eat enough pepper, your face and body will become hot and flushed; you may even start to sweat.   

These warming physiological effects were not lost on the ancient Romans.  In Satyricon, Petronius hailed pepper as a cure for impotence.  In the same vein, the author of The Perfumed Garden, a medieval Arab text, advised rubbing the genitals with a mixture of ground pepper and other spices for “a marvelous feeling of voluptuousness.”  Today black pepper is prized by aromatherapists for its stimulating, sensual fragrance.  Its essential oil is an ingredient of several “warm” perfumes, among them the provocative Comme Des Garcons, where black pepper is a clearly recognizable top note. 

Black pepper’s aroma comes from the essential or volatile oils, which are located in the pericarp, or outer shell, of the peppercorn.  The aroma is released when pepper is cracked or ground.  This is the reason that smart cooks only buy whole peppercorns and grind them as needed.  To experiment, poke your nose into a jar of ordinary ground pepper that has been sitting forlornly on the supermarket shelf.  Then inhale the heady fragrance of freshly ground black pepper.  The difference is startling:  The scent of freshly ground pepper rushes up the nose, producing a moment of near-intoxication.  The other is pallid and flat, an acrid dust at best. 

Aroma matters because, without it, there is no taste or flavor.  There are 10,000 taste receptors on our tongues, but they can only distinguish between five generic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami ( found in protein-rich food such as meat and cheese).  All the myriad “flavors” that make food worth eating come to us via five million smell receptors located in the nasal passages; altogether they make it possible for us to distinguish between 10,000 different aromas.   It is the smell receptors that tell us whether we are eating an apple or a pear and whether it is “good.”  The horror of anosmia—loss of the sense of smell—is that food has no taste.  A sufferer might as well eat stale bread as a truffled roast chicken. 

Although the food and fragrance industries have poured billions into research, no one really knows why the brain registers one set of smells as freshly ground pepper and another as dirty socks.  For years scientists have assumed that aromas have distinctive molecular shapes which are recognized by the receptors in the nose, much as a key fits into a lock.  However, Lucca Turin, an Italian biologist whose adventures were chronicled in Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, has roiled the industry with the controversial notion that it is actually the vibrations of smells that are distinctive.  If Turin is right, it may be that black pepper molecules emit their own tremulous vibrations, tickling smell receptors in our noses, transmitting messages to the most ancient reptilian parts of our brain where hungers lurk. 

Why We Cook with Pepper 

What all good cooks do know is that the aroma of black pepper whets the appetite.  As food writer Michele Anna Jordan observes, just the fragrance of fresh pepper can provoke a ravenous hunger.  In Salt and Pepper, she tells of touring a pepper warehouse in Sarawak.  Strolling through the aisles where peppercorns are being packed for shipping, she finds that “the aroma of black pepper eclipses everything until I am frantically, savagely hungry.  ‘Feed me now!’ I  think....”      

Of all the spices, black pepper is the most ubiquitous, playing a role in the cuisine of virtually every nation or ethnic group on the planet.  It is as likely to turn up in the murgh kali mirich of India as in the southern fried chicken of Mississippi, in spice mixtures from the baharat of Iraq to the quatre epices of France, in the feijoadas of Brazil and the tagines of Morocco, in the chai of India and the black tea of Siberia.  Even in the bright, chile-spiked cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam, cooks reach for black pepper when a dish calls for the crunch of a peppercorn or heat of a subtler, darker nature. 

Why do we use pepper?  In a word, for pleasure.  Unlike salt, pepper is not necessary for survival.  It keeps the psyche rather than the body alive.  We cook with it and grind it over our food for the way it heightens flavor.  In Elements of Taste, former Lespinasse chef Gray Kunz and food writer Peter Kaminsky explore this notion in a discussion of tastes that “push.”  Classifying pepper in this way, they state that “a dose of peppery heat pushes forward every iota of taste potential.”  

Their complex recipe for lamb shanks served with a “stew” of lentils, apricots, almonds and wild ramps, for instance, utilizes black peppercorns to tease out the flavor of the lamb, first in a marinade, then in the braising liquid.  The shanks get an extra kick from a sprinkle of ground white pepper, as do the almonds.  In the end, this is not a peppery dish, but certainly one in which every nuance of flavor is extracted from the ingredients. 

Kunz and Kaminsky appear to be on the right track.  A quick survey of 200 or so cookbooks in our library reveals relatively few dishes in which black pepper plays a starring role.  More often recipes call for a pinch, a quarter teaspoonful, or a sprinkling of “freshly ground pepper to taste.”  This suggests that the power of pepper lies in its ability to transform, to nudge flavor forward.  As Ian Hemphill points out, pepper can be used in concert with almost any other spice or herb.  In The Spice and Herb Bible, he lists 23 seasonings for which pepper has a “special affinity,” virtually the complete contents of any serious cook’s cupboard. 

How, then, do we use pepper? The always authoritative Larousse Gastronomique states unquivocably:   “Pepper is required in virtually all savoury dishes, whether they are served hot or cold.”  Almost instinctively, we reach for the peppermill when cooking savory food, especially meats.  In an article in Bioscience, researchers reviewed 4,578 meat-based recipes and found that 63 percent—about 2884—called for pepper, either alone or in combination.  Steak au poivre, traditionally prepared with cracked black pepper, underscores the point.  So does Philadelphia pepperpot, originally a warming soup of tripe, potato scraps and black peppercorns, or the Vietnamese New Year’s dish gio thu, a coarse, slightly chewy country-style “pate” made of pig’s ears, fresh bacon, black fungus and  spoonfuls of whole black peppercorns.   

Pepper adds sizzle to foods that are naturally fatty.  One thinks again of a thick, well-marbled steak encrusted with cracked Tellicherry peppercorns, but pepper also underscores the unctuousness of wild Alaskan king salmon, crispy-skinned roast chicken, and rich pork tenderloin grilled on an open fire.  It puts a pleasingly sharp edge on the smoothly rounded flavors of butter, cream and olive oil, making them even more voluptuous on the tongue.  A plate of pasta with olive oil and garlic comes alive with a twist of black pepper, as do all sorts of vinaigrettes.  Rich, smooth flavors, such as those in a buttery baked potato, become even richer and smoother when spiked with pepper. 

Although we would not put pepper in a glass of milk, it adds a special piquancy to other dairy products   In India, lassi, a cold yogurt drink, is often made with black pepper, while in France and Italy peppercorns occasionally turn up in superb cheeses.  Hard, salty pecorino pepato, for instance, is embedded with whole black peppercorns that burst upon the palate like explosive little land mines. Grate it over a plate of pasta dressed with olive oil and garlic, perhaps with a few more lashings of coarsely ground pepper, for an irresistible supper dish.  Green peppercorns add a fresh, spicy, aromatic note to the buttery tasting semi-soft French Pyrenees; use this to make a delectable grilled cheese sandwich.    

Black pepper works wonders with flavors that are sweet.  It has a particularly exquisite effect upon very fresh shellfish, whether used simply to bring out the natural sweetness of briny shrimp or scallops, or to add a more robust heat to dishes like Singapore black pepper crab. The Roman Apicius, whose recipes used pepper lavishly,  recommended it in desserts.  Today, Italians grind pepper over ripe strawberries, then sprinkle a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar for a honeyed-tart note.  In India, mangos and watermelon are eaten with freshly ground black pepper to heighten their luscious flavor.  In Germany, old-fashioned pfeffernusse cookies (literally “pepper nuts”) are seasoned with pepper as well as other spices.  Upscale chocolatiers from Chicago to Paris are creating truffles and candy bars that play up dark chocolate’s affinity for black pepper.   

The King of Spices heats up the seasoning blends of many nations.  It is a key ingredient of Middle Eastern baharat, Jamaica’s jerk spice, India’s garam masala, Ethiopia’s berbere, and France’s quatre epices.  In Morocco we once bought a wildly fragrant ras al hanout from a Berber spice merchant in Fez’s labyrinthian medina.  Among its 40 ingredients were black and white peppercorns, as well as more exotic cubebs and long pepper.  “This is for bad cooks,” laughed the merchant.   “They don’t know what spices to use, so I give them all.” 

Such distinct spice mixtures are distillations of their cultures, changing as one travels from point to point around the world.   Only pepper is the universal spice, a constant in each cuisine.  If we are what we eat, then we are, on some essential level, one world.  So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s put the chefs in charge.   A dialogue among sparring nations could begin at the global table over a feast seasoned with black pepper. 

For a list of sources used in this article, click here.