Friday, 19 June 2009


Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. In dried form, the fruit is often referred to as peppercorns. Peppercorns, and the powdered pepper derived from grinding them, may be described as pepper and depending on the colour of the powdered pepper, as black pepper, white pepper, red/pink pepper, and green pepper, though the terms pink peppercorns, red pepper, and green pepper are also used to describe the fruits of other, unrelated plants.

Black pepper is native to South India, particularly the Malabar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala. It is still extensively cultivated there and in the tropical South-East Asia regions. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is a small drupe about five mm in diameter, dark red when fully mature, containing a single seed.

Black pepper has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC. Peppercorns were (and still is) a much prized trade good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money. The term "peppercorn rent" still exists today.

Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BC. Little else is known about the use of pepper in ancient Egypt, nor how it reached the Nile from India.

It is possible that black pepper was known in China in the 2nd century BC, if poetic reports on an explorer named Tang Meng are correct. Sent by Emperor Wu to what is now south-west China, Tang Meng is said to have come across something called “jujiang” or "sauce-betel". The traditional view among historians is that "sauce-betel" is a sauce made from betel leaves, but arguments have been made that it actually refers to black pepper.

In the 3rd century AD, black pepper made its first definite appearance in Chinese texts, as “hujiao” or "foreign pepper". However, it does not appear to have been widely known at the time. By the 12th century however, black pepper had become a popular ingredient in the cuisine of the wealthy and powerful, sometimes taking the place of China's native Sichuan pepper (the tongue-numbing dried fruit of an unrelated plant).

Black pepper is one of the most common spices in European cuisine, having been known and prized since antiquity. It is found on nearly every dinner table in the world, often alongside table salt.
It is the black pepper, along with other spices from India and lands farther east, that changed the course of world history. It was in some part the preciousness and exorbitant price of this spice that led to the European efforts to find a sea route to India and consequently to the European colonial occupation of India, South-East Asia and the Far East, as well as the European discovery and colonization of the Americas.

The monopoly on the spice trade held by Italy was one of the inducements which led to the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea (via the Cape of Good Hope) and soon the Portuguese had exclusive rights to the spice trade between the East and Europe. However, by the 17th century, the Portuguese lost almost all of their valuable Indian Ocean possessions to the Dutch and the English.

Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe berries of the pepper plant. The berries are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean and to prepare for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the fruit, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The berries are dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the fruit around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dried, the fruits are called black peppercorns.

White pepper consists of the seed only, with the fruit removed. This is usually accomplished by allowing fully ripe berries to soak in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the fruit softens and decomposes. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. Alternative processes are used for removing the outer fruit from the seed, including removal of the outer layer from black pepper produced from unripe berries.
FYI, Sichuan peppercorn is another "pepper" that is botanically unrelated to black pepper and used mainly in Sichuan style Chinese cooking.

Peppercorns are often labeled by their region or port of origin. Two well-known types come from India's Malabar Coast: Malabar pepper and Tellicherry pepper. Tellicherry is a higher-grade pepper, made from the largest, ripest 10 per cent of berries from Malabar plants grown on Mount Tellicherry. Sarawak pepper is produced in the Malaysian sovereignty of Borneo and Lampong pepper on Indonesia's island of Sumatra. White Muntok pepper is another Indonesian product, which hails from Bangka Island (just off the Sumatran coast).

Pepper gets its spicy heat mostly from the piperine compound, which is found both in the outer fruit and in the seed. Pepper loses flavour and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve pepper's original spiciness longer. Pepper can also lose its flavour when exposed to light and also once ground, pepper's aromatics evaporate quite quickly. Most culinary sources recommend grinding whole peppercorns just before use for this reason. Pepper grinders and mortar and pestle are the commonly used implements.

Peppercorns are, by monetary value, the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for 20 per cent of all spice imports in 2002. The price of pepper can be volatile, and this figure fluctuates a great deal year to year. The International Pepper Exchange is located in Kochi, India.

Vietnam has recently become the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper (82,000 tons in 2003). Other major producers include Indonesia (67,000 tons), India (65,000 tons), Brazil (35,000 tons), Malaysia (22,000 tons), Sri Lanka (12,750 tons), Thailand, and China. Vietnam dominates the export market, using almost none of its production domestically. In 2003, Vietnam exported 82,000 tons of pepper, Indonesia 57,000 tons, Brazil 37,940 tons, Malaysia 18,500 tons, and India 17,200 tons.

Source: Wikipedia

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