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Pepper - The Universally Used Spice

Pepper - The Universally Used Spice

(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.

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