Peppy & Spicy

Kavitha Srinivasa

Honestly, this blog post should have happened earlier. I mean, what else can I say about this blog on pepper; one of our most commonly used ones in the spice jar? More so, as black pepper is hailed as the King of Spices. Peppercorns were often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money. Yet it took quite some time to get going on this peppery path. Pardon me for this.

Ok, without wasting much time, let me get started. This blog will look at black, white, and green pepper, all of which trace their origin to the woody tropical plant Piper nigrum. Incidentally, Piper nigrum is the name given to long pepper.

As far as India is concerned, pepper is grown in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Pondicherry. India is one of the largest producers and consumers of pepper in the world. As per the Spices Board website, Kerala State accounts for 97.4 percent of the total area under the crop in the country.

Pepper itself is pungent and black pepper has the highest pungency level among the three varieties. Black pepper is the unripe green fruit that is fermented and sun-dried. This is used in almost all Indian cuisines, either in the whole form or ground version, or blended with other spices. “Pepper is the least harmful spice, despite its pungency level. This is why even Sattvic cuisine which is not overly spiced uses pepper, said Krishna Shantakumar, General Manager, Aswati Group, which owns fine dining restaurants like Ebony and On the Edge in Bengaluru “A few peppercorns are thrown into the meal of dietary patients. We also use a pinch of pepper in salads and with fruits like banana and pineapple,” he added.

When the pepper berries are picked fully ripe, dried, and husked, it results in white pepper, which is extensively used in Continental cooking and in creamy soups. On the other hand, when the berries are picked before maturity and dried, we end up with green peppercorns. Green pepper is slightly crunchy and is used in pickles.

Regardless of the pepper type, generally speaking, the fiery, peppery flavor of pepper is known to add enough punch to any dish. Actually, when you think of it, chili and pepper are both hot but pepper can be singled out for its unique hot sensation which can be attributed to the resin called chavicine that it contains. Then pepper also has a volatile oil called piperine, whose essence is lost when dry pepper is exposed to the sun. The effect as you guessed is far from peppery.

Undoubtedly whole peppers are tossed with a few other spices for flavor. But it’s also true that ground pepper has been used as traditional medicine. “Pepper is a good digestive. Besides that, pepper is probably the very first spice that an infant is treated to,” explained Shantakumar.

This has been customary since ancient times. Ah, ancient times remind me of the maritime sea routes. Like all other Indian spices, pepper too made its way from India to the western world through sea trade. Proof, well let me tell you, I was surprised to note that Apicius’ De re Coquinaria, a third-century cookbook from Rome mentions pepper as one of the ingredients in its recipes. It is believed that the Gothic king Alaric agreed to lift the siege of Rome provided he was given 3,000 pounds of Indian pepper. To think of it, pepper has been a rich man’s choice, unlike cloves and cinnamon. Incidentally at that time pepper meant long peppercorns, which looked like brownish-black spikes. These peppercorns were later replaced by the round ones which we now use today.

“Pepper is a natural preservative. Before the refrigerator-era, when people ate dishes that contained coconut, after the meal, fresh pepper was added to the dish and boiled again before it was cooled and preserved,” concluded Shantakumar.

Of course, today pepper denotes other variants such as bell pepper. And how can we forget pepper mortars or the salt-pepper disposable shakers that adorn our dining tables?

On another note, an individual sporting a salt and pepper beard invariably brings a twinkle in the eye.