Black pepper (Piper nigrum). Photo: Avarsha.com
We use pepper all the time in cooking, adding its pungent flavor to so many of our meals, but have you ever wondered where pepper comes from?
It’s actually derived from a tiny fruit called a drupe (a drupe is a fruit with only one seed inside) that grows on the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), a climbing plant in the pepper family (Piperaceae). The harvested drupe is called a peppercorn.
The History of Pepper
Native to Southeast Asia (probably Kerala in southern India), pepper has been grown since time immemorial.
It was known to the Egyptians, the Greeks (as early as the 4th century BCE) and the Romans as an imported spice, carried via the spice route from the Malabar coast of India through the Red Sea, then to Egypt and, eventually Rome. It was likewise imported into China from at least the 4th century BCE on. It was an expensive luxury item, reserved for the elite.
Even after the fall of the Roman empire, it continued to be traded to the West, where it sold at exorbitant prices. Such was its value that peppercorns were even used as a currency. The main inducement of the Portuguese to find a trade route around the Horn of Africa, accomplished by Vasco da Gama in 1498, was to grab a share of the lucrative pepper trade. By the 17th century, the Dutch and English controlled the spice route and brought in pepper in vast quantities. As a result, the price fell to the point where pepper became the everyday seasoning we know today.
Today, pepper still accounts for one fifth of the world’s spice trade. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of peppercorns, although Indian peppercorns, notably from the region of Kerala, are considered to be of higher quality.
Despite the popular belief that pepper was once used to mask the flavor of rotting meat, this has no basis in fact, nor is it of any use as a preservative (salt does a much better job of that), another popular but unproven belief.
Pepper has had medicinal uses over the centuries and was used, among others, for treating toothaches, constipation, insomnia, sunburn and abscesses. Today, according to Wikipedia, it is not considered to be of any medicinal value. (No current medical evidence indicates any of these treatments has any benefit.)
What Gives Pepper Its Bite
The spicy flavor of pepper comes mostly from the alkaloid piperine and its pungency causes pain to the sensitive nerve cells of our tongue. Obviously, it’s a pleasant pain, although some people cannot tolerate the taste of pepper.
Pepper also causes sneezing. This is probably due to piperine irritating the nostrils.
Western cooks mostly know black pepper. This is produced from berries harvested green (immature). The peppercorns blacken as they dry, with the outer part contracting and wrinkling, a process usually hastened by cooking the drupes briefly in hot water beforehand. They are then ground before use.
Flavor declines over time, especially when the peppercorns are exposed to open air and to sun. Airtight storage helps preserve the spice’s pungent flavor and, of course, serious cooks grind their own pepper fresh in a pepper mill for optimum flavor.
White pepper is derived from ripe berries, which turn bright red. It comes uniquely from the seed, the flesh of the drupe being removed by various means. The dried seeds are then ground into powder. White pepper is commonly used in Chinese, Thai and Portuguese cuisine and also in white-colored food products, like sauces and mashed potatoes, where the appearance of the black spots left by black pepper would be distracting. It’s very pungent, but lacks the fuller flavor of black pepper.
Like black pepper, green pepper is made from unripe berries. Different products are added so they keep their green coloration as they dry. They’re also preserved pickled. Green pepper can also be used fresh, but fresh green pepper doesn’t keep well and so is unavailable to Western cooks, although popular in Asia.
Then there are red peppercorns, rarely seen outside of Southeast Asia, derived, as with white pepper, from fully mature berries and preserved in various ways: pickled or dried. Not to be confused with pink peppercorns (Schinus terebinthifolius), described below.
The Other Peppers
There are other true peppers (derived from plants in the genus Piper). Best known is long pepper or pipli (Piper longum). Or at least, it was once well known and was originally shipped to Europe along with black pepper (P. nigrum). The Romans, notably, believed the two came from the same plant. It’s a much hotter pepper, but is today rarely used outside of Asia. In this pepper, the individual seeds are embedded in a long catkin (inflorescence), hence the name long pepper. It’s the catkin that is ground up and used in cooking.
Another true pepper used in cooking is cubeb or tailed pepper (P. cubeba), but it is practically unknown outside of the Orient.
Hot pepper or chili pepper is derived from a very different plant: Capsicum, in the Solanaceae (tomato family). It picked up the name “pepper” by accident. Native to the New World, it was brought back to Spain and where its burning flavor led to it being mistaken for Piper nigrum. Chili pepper is, however, much more pungent than true pepper.
Then there are pink peppercorns. They’re the fruit of the pepper tree (Schinus spp.) of the Anacardiaceae (cashew family) and do look a lot like true pepper, with a vaguely similar peppery flavor. They can cause severe allergic reactions in people allergic to cashews.
Finally, there is Sichuan pepper, derived from the dried seed cases of several species of prickly ash (Zanthoxylum spp.; Z. simulans and Z. piperitum are the most commonly used). The seeds themselves are not eaten. Widely used in Sichuan and other Chinese cuisines, it has its own unique spicy flavor and also creates a feeling of numbness in the mouth. It can be reddish-brown or greenish brown, depending on harvesting and treatment, and may be used whole or reduced into powder.
Growing Your Own
Pepper (P. nigrum) can only be grown outdoors in the humid tropics (USDA hardiness zones 10 and above), but anyone can grow it as a houseplant. No, it’s not the easiest plant to grow and it’s slow to produce its first berries (calculate at least 4 years), but it is doable.
You’ll need tropical warmth (never below 60˚F/15˚C and daytime temperatures of 70 °F/20 °C and above are preferable), full sun* and high humidity (over 50% at all times). Since it’s a climbing plant, you’ll also need a trellis. Water thoroughly as soon as the soil begins to dry out and fertilize lightly with the fertilizer of your choice from early spring through late summer.
*Outdoors, pepper plants prefer partial shade.
Strings of insignificant white flowers drip from mature plants in spring and summer and self-pollinate, allowing the berries to form. They do so very slowly, usually taking an entire year to reach full maturity. Then you just have to harvest them at whatever stage you prefer: immature (green) or mature (red).
If you grow black pepper from seed (you’ll need fresh seed; you can’t grow black pepper from dried peppercorns), high temperatures are needed for germination: (75–85°F/24–30°C). Soak the seeds in tepid water overnight before sowing. Germination will take about a month.
If you have access to a plant, you can also produce a black pepper from stem cuttings. They root readily in pot of moist growing mix under high humidity.
Watch out for mealybugs, pretty much the pepper’s only enemy indoors other than dry air. Do note that the tiny beads of sap that form under the leaves and eventually turn black are normal for this plant. This is called guttation.
Every now and then, black pepper plants show up in garden centers during the summer months, but you have to be pretty lucky to find them. Here are a few sources for plants if you can’t locate one locally:
Tropic of Canada