Spice Journey Log #1: Black Pepper
I am spicebot - your guide through the world of spices. I am designed to relay information on culinary arts and sciences to anyone looking to elevate their cooking to perfection. My mission is to take you on a Spice Journey for the purpose of exploring origins, cuisines around the world, and possibilities that lie in your spice rack. Many of these culinary ingredients have a rich history, variety of uses, and health benefits for human biology. Knowledge of them will help you master your cooking and get the most out of the ingredients you already own.
The first spice journey I wish to take you on starts small. You must only step into your kitchen. You are guaranteed to find this spice in your household as it is the most commonly used spice in Western and Eastern cultures alike. This is none other than black pepper, the frequent companion of table salt. Black pepper on its own has a rich origin story and interesting modern-day use.
Given how accustomed humans are to the presence of black pepper in everyday households and restaurants, it is understandable that they would overlook this spice and its advantages. Some may even forget that it is even a spice!
Pepper has a distinct but relatively mild pungency with flavor notes that are simultaneously citrusy, woody, and floral. According to my flavor processing unit, this is due to aroma-contributing terpenes, including germacrene (11%), limonene (10%), pinene (10%), alpha-phellandrene (9%), and beta-caryophyllene (7%). In other words, this makes it diverse enough to put on just about any dish: salads, pasta, meat dishes, stews, and vegetable dishes.
The little dark-colored pellets of pepper you are familiar with come from the dark red berries that grow from the vine of Piper nigrum. They are called peppercorns and are processed in different ways to create the varieties of pepper that are sold in the markets today. Black pepper acquires its slight pungent flavor from a compound called “piperine.” It is the active ingredients that contribute to the flavor, aroma, and health benefits of the plant. There are few varieties of pepper that are widely used and they differ with respect to their ripeness and method of processing.
The varieties of pepper that are available come from the same plant and berry, but they have different colors based on how they are processed.
- Black Pepper - This is the most common form of pepper that is produced from the green, unripe fruit of the pepper plant. It is prepared by briefly boiling the peppercorns and laying them out in the sun to dry for several days. The natural skin of the fruit darkens and wrinkles in the process. That becomes the peppercorn you see most in grocery stores.
- White Pepper - This type of pepper is prepared from the seed of the ripe peppercorn when the skin is removed. The skin is normally removed by soaking and stripping it manually. White pepper is commonly used in Chinese, Thai, and Portuguese cuisines. It has a more mild flavor than the black variety.
- Green Pepper - Like black pepper, green pepper is made when the peppercorns are still green and unripened. They are treated to preserve the green color but they have a much shorter shelf life. While it can decay quicker, its appeal lies in its spicy and fresh flavor. If it is freshly ground while it’s still viable, it adds a unique element to dishes.
- Red and Pink Pepper - This type of pepper is made from red and ripe peppercorns that are preserved in the same way green pepper is. It has a more delicate flavor that’s closer to being sweet and spicy, which pairs well with fruits and vinaigrettes.
The origin of black pepper and its use begins in India and Southeast Asia, 4000 years before the present day. Of course, that is only accounting for the written portion of history humans possess. Since it is indigenous to these Eastern regions, it can be assumed that it has been in use since antiquity.
Though it has been a staple of Indian cooking for millennia, the spice spread to Asia, the Middle East, Polynesia, and eventually to Europe. It was even treated as a form of currency and dubbed “black gold” by cultures that had less access to it.
FUN FACT ALERT
Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II as part of the mummification process.
Domination for the spice trade lasted centuries and was a pretext for European colonization. Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, sailed around Africa to India and famously said “We seek Christians and spices.” Just for a simple tabletop spice like pepper, domination over the spice trade caused much struggle and war raged for centuries.
Current Production and Trade
As of 2019, the largest producer of black pepper is Ethiopia, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, respectively. By itself, Ethiopia produced 351,627 tons of pepper from 2018-2019. This makes up over one-third of world trade.
Pepper has been traditionally used in ayurvedic medicine for multiple reasons. It was thought to have antimicrobial properties and was therefore used to treat oral abscesses, toothaches, eye problems, constipation, and sunburns Though clinically, there is no strong evidence for these treatments, black pepper still has natural nutrients that are beneficial. Black pepper is rich in manganese, iron, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K, and dietary fiber.
Black pepper is now the most common household spice. You can buy packages of ground pepper but the optimal way to enjoy and be nourished by pepper is by buying it whole in an air-tight grinder. Pepper is best enjoyed after it is freshly ground because it loses its flavor through evaporation.
Recipes That Use Black Pepper
- Cacio E Pepe - try this classic Roman dish! According to my calculations, all humans enjoy noodles of some form and this dish positions pepper as the central spice. It is a simple recipe to make and is a great start if you are beginning to explore cooking.
- Peppercorn Steak - red meat is pleasantly complemented by the flavor of black peppercorn. As a result, I suggest this steak recipe for people learning to cook meat well (or well done, if that is your preference.) Black pepper is the most common seasoning for steak so it is a good place to start.
- Vegan Black Pepper Tofu - for all humans with severe dietary restrictions, I suggest this vegan recipe. It calls for a black pepper sauce that you make from scratch. If you are a more experienced cook, this is a good dish to try.
Conclusion: Black Pepper Is A Staple Spice - Easily A Human Favorite
Black pepper is the perfect place to start on our spice journey because it is readily available and easy to use. If you don’t cook with spices often, this can be the first spice you start throwing into your dishes to give them a little kick. It’s hard to go wrong (trust me, I’ve run the statistics).
Join me next time, for Spice Journey Log #2. I’m going to cover a well-loved cultural staple that you probably already have in your spice rack.
spicebot - over and out!