Pepper: The Most Important Spice Of All Time
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For centuries, black pepper has been among the most widely traded spices, leaving its mark on nearly every cuisine and culture in the world. No other spice is worthy of claiming a spot on a dinner table next to the most ubiquitous ingredient we know of - salt. At the height of its value, pepper was worth its weight in gold. It was routinely used in place of regular currency to pay off taxes, rent, and even dowries. 3000 pounds of peppercorns were famously included in the ransom agreement for the entire city of Rome when it was sacked by the Visigoths in 408CE. The spice was as prized in its homeland of India as it was in the far flung reaches of Egypt, Europe and even China. 

Dating as far back as 3000 years, there is documented evidence of the medicinal use of black pepper in India as a crucial element in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. A few thousand years later, 70% of all recovered Roman recipes include black pepper in some form. Black pepper was also consumed in staggering quantities by the Chinese during this period and, to this day, remains a crucial element of local cuisine. Nearly half of global pepper production is said to be used in Chinese cooking worldwide. It also constitutes 20% of the world’s spice with production led by Vietnam as of 2020.

The origins of Pepper

The term “pepper” originates from the old English word “piper” and also from the Sanskrit term “Pipali”. The spice comes from perennial vines native to Kerala. These vines sprout small, dense clusters of stone fruit that are dried to yield black pepper. The Telicherry region of Kerala is known to produce some of the world’s best pepper. Prized for its increased pungency and depth of flavour, it is a key export and happens to be one of KFC’s 11 secret herbs and spices. Outside of the lands of its origin, domesticated pepper species can be found in Brazil, Vietnam and China, all reflecting the unique soil and climate characteristics of their respective regions. The Lampong variety from Vietnam is particularly popular but lacks the depth and pungency of the Telicherry. 

For many centuries, the state’s abundant pepper production oiled the wheels of global commerce. Records dating back to the Roman Empire outline up to 120 annual voyages to the Malabar coast, with large ships that had capacities of 400 tonnes. The value of the annual pepper trade was said to exceed fifty million sesterces (or USD 100 million) annually, according to Roman scientist and philosopher Pliny the Elder. His works outline the Roman people’s insatiable desire for the spice and its prominent use throughout the empire. 

Pepper Changed The World

The promise of pepper was one that drove both Vasco Da Gama as well as Christopher Columbus toward Indian shores, ultimately fuelling the age of exploration. It came to dominate the burgeoning spice trade spanning the 1500s through to the 1800s, fuelling the vast fortunes of Continental European powers at great cost to the land and peoples that shared their origins with the spice. Vast numbers of people were enslaved, tortured and killed by colonial forces aiming to control cultivation and transport. The mystical aura surrounding pepper was largely shed by the early to mid-1800s due to lowered prices and availability that made it accessible to the common man. No longer was it a mystical and expensive spice that cost three times a weekly wage. It was largely eclipsed by sugar, tobacco and the slave trade - all centered around the West Indies. 

Pepper in its blackened, dry form - prized for its pungent and bold taste - is the most commonly consumed variety. Remove the black outer husk and you are left with white pepper, a Chinese cooking staple.

Sancho pepper and Sichuan pepper are close relatives of the plant that are staples in Japan and China respectively, prized for their unique “numbing” properties that compliment spicy and fatty foods. The spice’s ubiquity as an enhancer in cuisines across the globe has sustained its popularity since the beginning of its cultivation many thousands of years ago. 

It was also prized much like salt for its antimicrobial properties that aided in the curing, salting and smoking processes that preserved meat and other foods. More recently, studies have begun to explore the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of black pepper-derived essential oils.

Casting aside its long and storied history, why do humans like pepper so damn much? It's a spice that travels well and shows few signs of degradation over time, especially in its whole form. It is perhaps the most effective in combating blandness by adding both heat and pungency without dominating the flavours inherent to foods it is added to. It also pairs up with a large number of foods unlike many other spices that have limited uses. The primary alkaloid Piperin, responsible for pepper’s characteristic smell, is highly soluble and encourages stimulation in our salivary glands, which in turn encourages appetite and digestion.