Black pepper is my favourite spice and I much prefer it to white, except where the latter is required for seasoning something pale such as mashed potato or the classic sauce Béchamel. But black, white, green and red pepper - and the trendy multi-coloured peppercorns you so often find in restaurants these days - are all the same species, unlike some other peppers that I describe separately.
Unripe pepper fruits and leaf
Mixed dried peppercorns
Black pepper is native to the Malabar region of South India and has been cultivated for millennia. Black pepper and white pepper were known in antiquity, but green and red pepper are relatively recent. Pepper arrived in South-East Asia more than 2,000 years ago and has been grown in Malaysia and Indonesia ever since. At the end of the last century, production expanded in Thailand, Vietnam, China and Sri Lanka. The only important New World producer is Brazil, where plantations were established in the 1930s. India and Indonesia together account for about 50% of the world's total production. The best Indian grades are malabar and tellicherry, both of which are highly aromatic and pungent. In South-East Asia, the best black pepper originates from Sarawak in Malaysia and Lampong in Indonesia. Black pepper from elsewhere varies in heat and lacks the complex aroma found in Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian cultivars. The most important source of white pepper is the Indonesian island of Bangka, where peppercorns are named muntok after the island's main port. Small amounts of particularly light-coloured white pepper are grown in Sarawak, the best quality being known as Sarawak cream label. Brazil grows black, white and green peppercorns along the Amazon river in the state of Pará (from where paracress originates) and holds a near-monopoly in green pepper. Brazilian black and white pepper qualities are mild and are named after Pará's main port, Belém.
Dried fruits. These are known as "peppercorns" and sometimes incorrectly referred to as "pepper seeds".
Piperaceae (pepper family).
Pungent and aromatic, with pungency strongest in white pepper and weakest in green pepper, but with black and green peppercorns more aromatic than white.
The name pepper is derived from the Sanskrit name pippali for the different spice long pepper. That word gave rise to Greek peperi and Latin piper, which both came to mean "black pepper" instead of "long pepper". From Latin piper, the names of pepper in almost all contemporary European languages are derived, directly or indirectly. Examples are pepper (Old English pipor), Czech pepř, French poivre, German pfeffer and Finnish pippuri. Of all European languages, only Iberic names have a different origin (Spanish pimienta and Portuguese pimenta, but not Catalan pebre which is piper-derived).
Several Semitic languages of Western Asia have also loaned Greek piperi, e.g. Arabic filfil and Hebrew pilpel. Because pepper arrived in the Mediterranean region comparatively late (end of 4th century), it is not named in the Old Testament. Non-Semitic languages of Western Asia often have similar names for pepper, probably directly loaned from Greek, e.g. Turkish biber, Kurdish bibari, Georgian pilpili and Armenian bghbegh.
The English common names of many other spices have been influenced by "pepper", e.g. paprika (an adaptation from a Serbian word meaning "pepper"), peppermint, water pepper, chilli "red pepper", savory "pepper herb", allspice "Jamaica pepper", chaste tree "monk's pepper", cress "pepper grass", horseradish "pepper-root" and ginger "pepper-root". In Chinese, many spices are named similarly as variants of the native Sichuan pepper.
The most common name of black pepper in Sanskrit is maricha, which might be a Dravidian loan cf. modern Tamil milagu "pepper". Ironically, maricha has not only left less trace than pippali in non-Indic languages, but it has also changed its meaning in modern descendants of Sanskrit. Punjabi mirch and Dhivehi mirus have taken the meaning "chilli" and the original meaning "pepper" is retained only in combination with qualifying adjectives. Other examples are provided by Hindi and Urdu names of black pepper, kali mirch and gol mirch which mean "black chilli" and "round chilli", respectively. That pepper is named after chilli in Indian languages is ironic as pepper is native to India, whereas chilli was only introduced only 500 years ago.
Sanskrit marichan is also the source of modern Indonesian merica, which has conserved the original meaning "pepper". Sanskrit is rich in synonyms and has many more names for black pepper, some of which derive from the adjective krishna "black". Yet another name is yavanapriya, conserved in Modern Tamil as yavanappiriyam. The meaning of this compound is "dear to the Greeks", hinting at the high commercial value of pepper. Chinese hu jiao, which means "wild pepper", is the source of Japanese koshō and Korean huchu. See Sichuan pepper for the origin of the Chinese name.
Species name nigrum is Latin for "black".
Black pepper, grown in South India for more than two thousand years, has always been highly valued all over the world. After Alexander the Great invaded Central Asia and reached India (4th century BC), new trading routes were established that brought pepper to the West for the very first time. Within a short time, the growing popularity of pepper made it a most important item of commerce. Arabic traders established a pepper monopoly and transferred the spice via the spice route through the Arab peninsular and Egypt to European customers, denying them any knowledge about the origin of pepper.
In spite of its then astronomical price, pepper was much used by the Romans and became, in the Early Middle Ages, a status symbol of fine cookery. At this time, the Italian town of Venezia had monopolised trade with the Arabs to the same extent as the Arabs monopolised trade with Indian producers. Due to this double monopoly, comparatively few cooks in Europe could afford pepper, but when Europe's economical situation stabilised in the 15th century, increasing demand for pepper led to the Age of Exploration. European sailors attempted to reach India and obtain the spice directly from the producers, bypassing the Arab and the Venetian monopolists.
At the end of the 15th century, Portuguese seafarers changed the medieval view of the world. In 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India, founded Portuguese outposts and established permanent trade relations with local rulers. From this time forward Lisboa replaced Venezia as the spice centre of Europe. Portugal’s colonies in Southern and Southeast Asia persisted until the second half of the 20th century, even after the spice business had been lost to England and Holland.
Pepper production was long confined to the small region of Malabar, in the South of India's West coast. Because of expensive transport and the monopoly of trade, prices remained high and European consumers were sometimes forced to use pepper substitutes. Of these, Mediterranean chaste tree berries and the two African spices grains of paradise and negro pepper have since lost almost all importance, as have myrtle berries which were never considered an effective substitute.
Pepper is unique in the spice world as the fruits are marketed as peppercorns of four different varieties, namely black, white, green and red. By choosing the time of harvest and processing method, all four types could, in principle, be produced from the same pepper plant.
The term "black pepper" refers to the fruits of pepper harvested unripe (but not far from ripeness) and dried at moderate temperature. Typically the whole pepper spike is picked just as the first berry starts to turn red and stored overnight at room temperature. Fermentation takes place and the green pepper fruits turn black. Drying then starts, often in direct sunlight without the help of dehydrators.
The later pepper is picked, the better its flavour becomes, although pungency does not increase much in the final days of ripening. Waiting too long, however, is not an option because ripe pepper fruits cannot be fermented in the usual way as their sugar content would cause rotting. The latest moment to produce black pepper is when the fruits turn yellow-orange. Pepper made from these near-ripe berries is produced only in India, has a particularly good flavour and is traded as tellicherry pepper.
Fully ripened pepper fruits are used to make white pepper. For that purpose, the outer hull (mesocarp) must be removed. The mesocarp not only contains the sugar but also some of the volatile aroma compounds, whereas pungency compounds are only located in the endocarp. The usual way of processing is by soaking the berries for about one week, preferably in slow-running water, after which the mesocarp disintegrates and can be separated mechanically from the endocarp kernel. The remainder, mainly the seed grain, is then dried and sold as white pepper. White pepper has the full pungency of black pepper, but has an altered flavour due to partial loss of aroma compounds. It is significantly more expensive than black pepper, partly because of the high risk of losing an entire harvest to changing weather and partly due to the extra work involved.
In Madagascar, another way of processing pepper was developed. Green pepper is early-harvested pepper, with fruits far from ripe and processed in a way that excludes fermentation. The freshly harvested pepper corns are pickled in salt or vinegar, or quick-dried at high temperature or in vacuum. Because of its unripeness, green pepper has only limited pungency, but has a fresh, herbal, "green" flavour.
The same type of pickling process can be applied to ripe pepper fruits, when their colour is retained and one arrives at red pepper. Red peppercorn is a rare commodity, much more pungent and aromatic than green pepper, combining the spicy, mature flavour of black pepper with the fresh notes of green. Dried red peppercorns are even harder to find. Red pepper should not be confused with pink pepper, which stems from a different plant with little peppery quality.
Although the four different coloured peppers are produced, black pepper still dominates in production and consumption. Red pepper is mainly an exotic curiosity. Green pepper is mainly used in Western cooking, where it often goes into white mustard or bottled condiments. It is the pepper of choice for pepper steak and for sauces to accompany broiled or fried meats. Pickled green peppercorns are often used as a spicy garnish to cold foods and dried green peppercorns are useful for delicate dishes for which the heavy pungency of black pepper would be disastrous.
Fresh green pepper, not always easy to find in Western countries, enjoys increasing popularity in producing countries, particularly Thailand where it is excellent in stir-fries and used in curry pastes. Pickled green peppercorns are too acidic to be used as substitute, but soaked dried green peppercorns can be used if the fresh are unavailable.
White pepper is also mainly used in Western cooking. It is often suggested for white (cream-based) sauces where black pepper would spoil the colour, e.g. béchamel sauce. It is also used whenever pungency takes predominance over pepper flavour, e.g. to adjust taste at the last moment. The mildly aromatic pungency of white pepper has also become popular in Japan, where it is often used as an alternative to the local variety of Sichuan pepper in meat marinades. Although Chinese cooking does not use pepper very much, white pepper is the chief source of pungency in hot and sour soup (suanla tang).
An example of a traditional European dish that uses white pepper is gefilte fish "stuffed fish", a specialty of Yiddish cooking (especially in Germany, Poland and Ukraine). Gefilte fish is usually served cold, together with the gelatinised broth and a pungent paste made from red beets and horseradish.
For all other purposes, black pepper is preferred and is widely used in almost all of the world's cuisines. As pepper cultivation has much increased recently and new plantations spread to remote locations, black pepper has been introduced into cuisines that used little pepper before, e.g. Thai cooking. Black pepper is particularly popular for comparatively mild stews as preferred in the cuisine of the Royal Thai Court.
The Vietnamese also now use much more black pepper than a few decades ago and Vietnamese pepper production is now well-established. Black pepper is added to long-simmered soups and appears quite often as a table condiment. In Cambodia, black pepper is part of the ubiquitous table condiment tik marij, a mixture of lime juice, salt and freshly ground pepper. Ironically, black pepper is little used in the cuisines of Malaysia and Indonesia, although these are the oldest production areas outside of India.
Black pepper can be used for nearly every kind of dish, including some deserts. The combination of ripe strawberries and green or black pepper is almost a classic in European cooking and a pinch of pepper can well be used for other mild fruits, resulting in a particularly "exotic" taste. Indonesians use pepper to prepare a hot fruit salad called rujak.
High-quality dark chocolate enhanced with a dash of black pepper has recently appeared on the European market. Peppered sweetmeats were common in Ancient Greece and Rome (at least for those who could afford them) and a few such recipes are still found in recent European cuisines, e.g. Italian panforte and some variants of German lebkuchen.
Pepper appears in numerous spice mixtures, cautiously in Western Asian cuisines e.g. Georgian khmeli-suneli, but more liberally further East, e.g. Iraqi baharat, Anglo-Indian curry powder, North Indian garam masala and South Indian sambaar podi.
Because the Arabs monopolised pepper trade for millennia it is not surprising that pepper is popular in their cooking and plays a major role in several Arabian spice mixtures, e.g. Yemeni zhoug, Moroccan ras el hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ethiopian berbere.
Black pepper has entered traditional cuisines in Latin America and white pepper is common in the Creole cuisine of New Orleans. Pepper is a main constituent of the French creation quatre épices and alone, or in combination with other spices, pepper is much loved all over the world for spicy meat stews, steaks, sauces and all kinds of vegetable dishes. The celebrated French invention sauce béarnaise owes part of its spicy flavour to black peppercorns simmered in vinegar.
Pepper pungency also goes well with sour flavours. In Europe and the US, mixtures of coarsely ground black pepper with desiccated lemon juice are popular for flavouring poultry and fish. This so-called "lemon pepper" should not be confused with exotic Indonesian lemon pepper, a variety of Sichuan pepper.