Latin name: Piper nigrum
Other names: Kali Mirchi (Hindi)
Uses: spice, seasoning, preservative
While you likely know pepper as salt’s faithful tabletop companion, that pre-ground powder is a mere shadow of this mighty spice’s power. So valuable in the ancient world that it was sometimes used as currency, pepper was buried with Pharoah Rameses II and helped to inspire Columbus’ voyage. Today it’s one of the most popular spices in the world.
Why is pepper healthy?
Black pepper can help to treat gingivitis, relieve sinus congestion and respiratory ailments, and may maintain gastrointestinal health by stimulating digestive acids and enzymes. Studies have shown that piperine, pepper’s key alkaloid, assists in cognitive brain functioning and can help alleviate depression. Like many other spices, black pepper has warming, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties, which may help reduce pain from injury or arthritis. Pepper has also long been used in ayurvedic ointments to increase melanin production for people suffering from pigmentation problems like vitiligo and leukoderma.
What does pepper taste like?
Black pepper, produced by boiling and drying the unripe drupe of the pepper plant, has a signature spicy kick. Since the outer layer of the fruit is left on, it has an intensely pungent aroma with citrusy, woody, and floral notes. The Tellicherry variant from Kerala in South India is prized as the boldest of black peppers. White pepper, which is only the seed of the ripe fruit, lacks complexity but has a more fruity and flowery character, while less-used green peppercorns, with their more muted taste and aroma, are made from dried unripe drupes.
Where does pepper grow?
The perennial climbing vine is native to South and Southeast Asia, with India’s Malabar Coast being the most well-known source. Trade made it a valuable commodity from Ancient Egypt to China and Rome, and later in Medieval Europe. The crop has since been introduced into tropical areas around the world.
How do I prepare pepper and what do I pair it with?
A universal table condiment, black pepper is commonly used to add kick and complexity to soups, stews, marinades, sausages, and pickles. Known as an appetite stimulant, it is a mainstay of Indian cuisine, where it bolsters the quintessential garam masala mix, adds heat to rasam and curries, is pressed whole and fried into matthis, and is even ground into milk-based coolers like thandai.
Black pepper’s unique flavor pairs well with just about anything savory, but if you’re adventurous, add it to sweet dishes and create new depth to cakes, gingerbread, cookies, or even fruit compotes. Ground white pepper has its own fan base in Europe, especially Portugal, as well as in China and Thailand. It’s used in the popular Chinese hot and sour soup and in stir-fry recipes, while in Europe it’s handy for its ability to blend in with light-colored dishes like whipped potatoes and vichyssoise. Green pepper is often found in Thai and Tamilian cuisine, where it works as a milder, brighter substitute for black pepper that pairs well with seafood.
More than 60 different plants around the world are called “pepper,” but many are not edible, and most are not even related to each other.