Pepper, the prized spice of the ancient world, is a cook’s best friend during the winter.
Packed with bracing heat and robust flavor, black pepper is the world’s most popular spice. In frigid January, it brings out the best in winter roasts, stews and braises, and delivers tingling warmth that’s literally straight from the tropics: The Piper nigrum plant thrives only within about 15 degrees of the equator.
Native to Malabar on the southern Indian coast, where hot weather and monsoon rains encourage this perennial vine to climb upward of a hundred feet, black peppercorns have been treasured for millennia. As early as 950 B.C., they were a cornerstone of the Arab spice monopoly, which successfully kept its trade routes secret and profited from trade with ancient Rome.
Pepper was so valuable that 3,000 pounds of it, along with gold and silver, were paid to invading Visigoths as bounty for sparing the city of Rome in A.D. 408. During medieval times in Europe, pepper was akin to coins and could be used to pay rent, purchase livestock or substantiate a wedding dowry. The struggle over the East Indies and its valuable spices, including pepper, kicked off after the Portuguese reached India by sea in 1498.
As the Dutch, Spanish and British powers also battled for control, trade routes opened, and black pepper became more widely available—eventually arriving on the shores of the New World. Yankee ingenuity entered the picture in the late 1700s as New England colonists such as Elihu Yale, who established Yale University with the fortune he amassed in the pepper trade, learned to trade directly with partners in Southeast Asia.
Black pepper’s perennial popularity is not—as some storytellers would have it—because it was necessary to cover the flavor of spoiled meat in pre-refrigeration days. It was used as a preservative, certainly, but its rich, mouth-watering aroma and spicy, savory taste have always been the source of its popularity. Our habit of keeping a pepper grinder on the table is relatively recent, dating only a few centuries back, but recipes that depend on it have long been a staple in cuisines around the world. Its affinity for all kinds of ingredients can surprise: In Greece, it’s traditional to coat sweet dried figs with freshly cracked pepper, while in the tropics it adds a layer of spice to fresh pineapple. Essential for sharpening creamy flavors in dishes like Thai corn chowder or spaghetti carbonara, it’s also key to the searing heat of Malaysian-style salt-and-pepper shrimp or crab.
There is virtually no limit to the ways this intense spice can be relished. If freshly ground black pepper feels old hat, add green or white peppercorns to your cooking repertoire—and remember that the pepper grinder is just the place to turn for warmth to see you through winter.
Much of the world’s supply of black pepper is still grown on family farms in India and Malaysia where home-garden plots may yield only as much as a one or two pounds of pepper per year. Large-scale exporters buy the crop and sell much of it to the U.S., the world’s largest consumer of the spice.
The plant, a climbing vine that’s often trained over such “tutor trees” as mango, white teak or coffee, yields berries that grow in long, narrow hanging clusters and somewhat resemble very small grapes. Depending on when and how the peppercorn berries are picked and processed, the resulting spice will be one of the three most common varieties: black, green or white.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Black peppercorns are the most common form of pepper and have the fullest range of flavor and aroma. The berries are picked while nearing ripeness and attain their characteristic wrinkly black shell after being cured on mats in the hot sun (larger-scale production uses huge fans). Tellicherry peppercorns, named after the southern Indian port that established the pepper trade (the town is now called Thalassery), are the best-known for size, quality and classic black-pepper flavor.
Green peppercorns are essentially unripe black peppercorns, picked early when the berries are still soft and immature. Lacking the rich, fully developed flavor of black pepper, they still have a pleasant, fruity quality that’s well-matched to milder fare such as cream sauce or fresh seafood. To prevent them from turning black, green peppercorns must either be freeze-dried or packed in brine before drying.
Pink peppercorns, so often included in four-pepper blends, are not pepper at all. Taste them alone—the small, hard seeds have a bright-pink, papery outer layer and a very mild aroma and flavor—and you’ll discover that they have little flavor. They come from the Schinus terebinthifolius tree (no relation at all to the true pepper plant, Piper nigrum) and first earned fame as a trendy ingredient in the late 1970s. They’re definitely not a must for a black-pepper lover—although they are the key ingredient in spicy teaberry chewing gum.
White peppercorns are picked about a week later than black peppercorns when the berries are ripe and yellow. Then, they are submerged in streams or man-made vats; this underwater cure removes the outer layer of the berry, which darkens and wrinkles in black pepper. The cream-colored core of the berry remains and, once dried, delivers a delicious, subtle flavor that is often preferred to black pepper in many parts of southeast Asia. Look for Sarawakwhite peppercorns from Malaysia, which you can find along with other standout varieties (including green and Tellicherry black peppercorns) at Penzeys Spices in the Strip District.