(Piper nigrum) Perhaps the best known
and most universally used spice. Small, round berries growing in
trailing clusters, deep green turning red as they ripen, are borne on a
vine with dark green heart-shaped leaves. This is true pepper.
There are other spices which, because they
have a pungency reminiscent of pepper, have been given the name: chili
pepper (Capsicum family), Szechwan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum),
and Jamaica pepper (Pimenta dioica or allspice). However, they
are unrelated botanically.
The word pepper comes from the Sanskrit
pippali, referring to Piper longum or long pepper - of the same
botanical family as P.nigrum but somewhat milder in flavor and,
instead of round berries, bearing fruit about 2.5 cm long and about 6 mm
wide. This was the pepper, more likely than not, used as currency in
Roman times and said to be 4 times more valuable than black pepper. It
seems not to be specified in today's recipes. It is always used whole,
as a pickling spice.
It is difficult to believe that black pepper
was what provided the heat in Asian foods until the sea voyages of
Columbus and others brought back chilies from the New World, but it is
indeed so. Even today, black pepper together with fresh coriander and
garlic provides the basic flavoring of Thai food. Black pepper is also
prominent in some Portuguese influenced dishes of Goa and Spanish
influenced dishes of the Philippines.
Black pepper (Pepper nigrum) :
Obtained by drying the green berries in the sun, making the outer skin
turn black and take on the familiar shriveled appearance.
Green peppercorns : The immature
berries of the Piper nigrum species which are sold fresh, brined
or dried. Popular in certain Thai dishes such as Jungle Curry. Also used
in Western style pates and terrines.
White pepper : From the Piper
nigrum berries left to become ripe, packed into sacks and soaked in
slow-flowing water for around 8 days, after which the softened outer
coating is rubbed off. The inner portion is then dried in the sun for
several days until the grey color becomes creamy white. They are
somewhat hotter than black peppercorns and not as fragrant, but are
useful for white sauces or other dishes where the speckling of black
would spoil the appearance of a dish.
Cubed pepper (P.cubeba) : A
member of the pepper family. It looks rather like a black peppercorn
with a stalk and is hardly ever found these days, though they were
valued as a medicine and as a spice up to the 17th century. The king of
Portugal forbade their sale, thus hoping to promote the universal use of
black pepper grown in the colonies he ruled. It seems he was
spectacularly successful. If cubebs are found at all today, it will
probably be in the pharmacopoeia of a herbalist.
Jamaica pepper (Pimenta doica)
: Aromatic berries of a tree of the myrtle family. The dried berries are
sold as allspice.
Pink peppercorns (Schinus molle,
or S.terebinthifolius) : Enjoyed immense popularity in Western
cooking a few years ago, but are not pepper at all. They don't grow on a
vine but on a feathery leaved ornamental tree, commonly known as mastic
tree. All parts of the tree are fragrant, and the bright pink berries of
both varieties of Schinus are used in fancy pepper mixes, or pickled in
brine and sold as pink peppercorns. While they are decorative and have a
distinctive aroma, the fibrous outer shell is not easy to eat. They are
not used in Asian food.