Other Names: Biber (Turkish); cây tiêu (Vietnamese); fefer (Yiddish); felfel (Farsi); fulful (Arabic); gol mirch (Hindi); hu jiao (Mandarin); koshou (Japanese); kundo berbere (Amharic); merica (Indonesian); pepe (Italian); perets (Russian); pfeffer (German); pili-pili (Swahili); pilpel (Hebrew); pimenta (Portuguese); pimienta (Spanish); piperi (Greek); poivre (French); prik thai (Thai); wuh jiu (Cantonese).

General Description: Peppercorns, the small, highly pungent and aromatic dried fruits of the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), are found in four different versions: black, white, green, and red. Black and white pepper were known in antiquity, but green pepper and the even newer red pepper are more recent inventions. After Alexander the Great crossed central Asia in the fourth century BC, new trading routes brought pepper to the West. Within a short time, pepper’s growing popularity made it a highly valued spice. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its astronomical price, pepper was much used by the Romans, and in the early Middle Ages it became a status symbol for fine cookery. Arab traders established a monopoly in trading pepper to European customers, from whom they kept secret their knowledge of its origin in India. Increasing demand for pepper led to the European age of exploration in an effort to reach India to obtain pepper directly. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached India and founded several Portuguese outposts, followed later by Dutch and then English explorers.

Black pepper, widely used in almost all cuisines of the world and cultivated in tropical regions worldwide, is produced from nearly ripe berries that are sun-dried so an enzyme contained in the outer portion (the pericarp) oxidizes and turns them black. White pepper consists of only the inner seed with the pericarp removed by soaking and rubbing or by decorticating when dry. More expensive white pepper is less aromatic and hotter than black because it contains more piperine, the volatile oil that gives pepper its characteristic flavor. It is preferred in Europe, especially France, for light-colored foods and is now popular in Japan for sukiyaki.

Green peppercorns, hand picked when full-sized but not yet ripe, are highly aromatic and less pungent than the black type. To keep them green, the enzyme they contain is kept from activating, either by brining, by boiling and then oven-drying, or by freeze-drying. Green pepper is used mostly in European and American cooking, where it seasons mustard, pepper steak, and pâtés. Red peppercorns are picked when fully ripened and red and then dried. They combine the aromatic pungency of black pepper with the fresh notes of green pepper. Rare and not to be confused with the unrelated crushed red pepper flakes and pink peppercorns, they combine the spicy, mature flavor of black pepper with the freshness of green pepper.

Long pepper, resembling a small, narrow pinecone, may come from either P. longum or P. retrofractum_. It has a sweet, fragrant, and musky aroma and a hot, lingering, and numbing flavor. Much used in classical and medieval times, long pepper has fallen out of use in Europe, though it is popular in India and Asia. Cubeb pepper (P. cubeba_) resembles black peppercorns with small stalks protruding from one end and has a peppery aroma similar to juniper berries and hot, pungent flavor. Native to Java, it was valued by the Romans; today it’s used mostly in India and North Africa. The aromatic leaves of betel (P. betle) are used in India to make mouth-reddening pan, chewed as a stimulant. Taiwan’s native peoples have grown and chewed betel nut for centuries, and the habit has become a distinctly Taiwanese custom.

Indian Malabar and Tellicherry peppercorns are highly regarded. Dark brown Tellicherry pepper, made from nearly ripe berries, has excellent flavor and aroma and fetches a high price. Lemony flavored Indonesian peppercorns, such as the hot Lampong black from Sumatra and milder Muntok white, tend to be smaller in size and lower in price; they are most popular in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Grayish Malaysian Sarawak pepper with milder fruity aroma and less pungency is commonly used for supermarket-grade ground black pepper. Sarawak white peppercorns from Malaysia are reputed to be the finest, due to careful handling and processing. Milder Brazilian black and white peppers are named after their main port, Belém. Green peppercorns may be found brined, oven-dried (firm enough for a pepper mill), and freeze-dried. True red peppercorns are rare and hard to find.

Purchase and Avoid: Avoid purchasing preground pepper, because its volatile aromatic notes quickly dissipate and what’s left is single-dimensional hotness. Also, poorer quality peppercorns are commonly preground. Pepper may be purchased in many forms: whole, cracked, coarsely ground, medium ground, finely ground (fine as powder), pericarp only, and table or shaker grind.

Serving Suggestions: Make swordfish, tuna, or beef steak au poivre by spreading with crushed peppercorns. Make mignonette sauce for raw oysters by combining red wine vinegar with chopped shallots, grated lemon zest, sea salt, and finely crushed white and black pepper.

Food Affinities: Most savory foods, especially balsamic vinegar, beef, brandy, curry, fish, goose, lamb, lemon, pork, rabbit, red wine, red wine vinegar, seafood, shallot, venison.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com