The most sought after and heavily traded spice in history, pepper lives up to its expectations by transforming blandness into bite in almost every imaginable dish. Add to meats, fish and vegetables; salads, rice and sandwiches. Even sweet dishes such as Indian chai enjoy a subtle background kick from a small amount of freshly ground pepper.
Peppercorns, the small, highly pungent and aromatic dried fruits of the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), are found in four different versions: black, white, green and red. Black and white pepper were known in antiquity, but green pepper and the even newer red pepper are more recent inventions.
After Alexander the Great crossed central Asia in the fourth century BC, new trading routes brought pepper to the West. Within a short time, pepper’s growing popularity made it a highly valued spice. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its astronomical price, pepper was much used by the Romans, and in the early Middle Ages it became a status symbol for fine cookery.
Arab traders established a monopoly in trading pepper to European customers, from whom they kept secret their knowledge of its origin in India. Increasing demand for pepper led to the European age of exploration in an effort to reach India to obtain pepper directly. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached India and founded several Portuguese outposts, followed later by Dutch and then English explorers.
Black pepper, widely used in almost all cuisines of the world and cultivated in tropical regions worldwide, is produced from nearly ripe berries that are sun-dried so an enzyme contained in the outer portion (the pericarp) oxidizes and turns them black.
White pepper consists of only the inner seed with the pericarp removed by soaking and rubbing or by decorticating when dry. More expensive white pepper is less aromatic and hotter than black because it contains more piperine, the volatile oil that gives pepper its characteristic flavour. It is preferred in Europe, especially France, for light-coloured foods and is now popular in Japan for sukiyaki.
Green peppercorns, hand picked when full-sized but not yet ripe, are highly aromatic and less pungent than the black type. To keep them green, the enzyme they contain is kept from activating, either by brining, by boiling and then oven-drying, or by freeze-drying. Green pepper is used mostly in European and American cooking, where it seasons mustard, pepper steak, and pâtés. Green peppercorns may be found brined, oven-dried (firm enough for a pepper mill), and freeze-dried.
Red peppercorns are picked when fully ripened and red and then dried. They combine the aromatic pungency of black pepper with the fresh notes of green pepper. Rare and not to be confused with the unrelated crushed red pepper flakes and pink peppercorns, they combine the spicy, mature flavour of black pepper with the freshness of green pepper. True red peppercorns are rare and hard to find.
Indian Malabar and Tellicherry peppercorns are highly regarded. Dark brown Tellicherry pepper, made from nearly ripe berries, has excellent flavour and aroma and fetches a high price.
Lemony flavoured Indonesian peppercorns, such as the hot Lampong black from Sumatra and milder Muntok white, tend to be smaller in size and lower in price; they are most popular in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Grayish Malaysian Sarawak pepper with milder fruity aroma and less pungency is commonly used for supermarket-grade ground black pepper.
Sarawak white peppercorns from Malaysia are reputed to be the finest, due to careful handling and processing.
Milder Brazilian black and white peppers are named after their main port, Belém.
- Other Names
- Biber (Turkish); cây tiêu (Vietnamese); fefer (Yiddish); felfel (Farsi); fulful (Arabic); gol mirch (Hindi); hu jiao (Mandarin); koshou (Japanese); kundo berbere (Amharic); merica (Indonesian); pepe (Italian); perets (Russian); pfeffer (German); pili-pili (Swahili); pilpel (Hebrew); pimenta (Portuguese); pimienta (Spanish); piperi (Greek); poivre (French); prik thai (Thai); wuh jiu (Cantonese).
- Purchase and Avoid
- Avoid purchasing preground pepper, because its volatile aromatic notes quickly dissipate and what’s left is single-dimensional hotness. Also, poorer quality peppercorns are commonly preground. Pepper may be purchased in many forms: whole, cracked, coarsely ground, medium ground, finely ground (fine as powder), pericarp only, and table or shaker grind.
Make swordfish, tuna, or beef steak au poivre by spreading with crushed peppercorns.
Make mignonette sauce for raw oysters by combining red wine vinegar with chopped shallots, grated lemon zest, sea salt, and finely crushed white and black pepper.
red wine vinegar
Category: Spices and Herbs
Sub Category: Herb
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