Pepper is such a common item in kitchens, one may not think that at one point it was so valuable. Pepper is considered the world's most valuable spice and at certain points in time was used as currency to pay debts. Most people would consider ground peppers' close companion salt to be the world's most valuable spice. However, spices come from ground up berries and pods. Salt comes from mines and sea water, thus it is considered a mineral. If salt were a spice, it would certainly trump out pepper in terms of value, though.
Today pepper stand among the third most added ingredient to food, aside from salt and water. You would be hard pressed to find any savory or spicey food that did not call for pepper.
Ground pepper originates from the peppercorn, the pepper corn is the fruit from the flower on the perennial woody vine of the pepper plant. This plant is native to India, however it can be found all around the jungles of southeast Asia.
History of Pepper
In Latin, pepper was called Piper nigrum. Piper meaning plant and nigrum meaning black. Pepper finds itself among the ranks of world's oldest spices. While there is no solid proof, it is said that peppercorns began adding spice to food more than 4,000 years ago and humans began growing it for the purpose of the spice around 1,000 BC.
Pepper was primarily shipped from India's Malabar port to Northern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East until well after the Middle ages. It could have also been found in Sumatra, Madagascar, Java, and Malaysia though it was either used natively or only traded with China.
In Roman times, pepper was such the luxury good it was traded ounce for ounce with precious metals like gold. It was an accepted currency in the Middle Ages used for paying rent, taxes, and dowries. It was an ideal currency as it did not rot provided it was kept out of sun light and did not get wet. This is where the term 'peppercorn rent' comes from. Today it means cheap rent, but back then, peppercorn was actually quite valuable.
Pepper remained quite the luxury good until the British influence spread in India and the East India Company began to ship it by the ton. Up until 1825, pepper was so valuable that mills would stretch it with ground juniper berries, mustard husks, and even dust from floor sweepings to stretch ground pepper. Today, high grade pepper is judged by the moisture content of the peppercorns.
Pepper can be used in everything from savory dishes to sweet, anything that needs a little bit of spice or heat to really make the flavor of food pop. The flavor of pepper comes from pepperin oils that are released when the peppercorn is freshly ground or boiled. This is why to get the best flavor out of pepper, one should buy peppercorns whole and grind them fresh. however, one can imbue the flavor of pepper to a dish by boiling peppercorns.
pepper was not always used for food, though. Pepper first gained its fame for its medicinal uses. Black pepper was believe to treat constipation, diarrhea, earache, gangrene, heart disease, hernia, indigestion, insect bites, insomnia, joint pain, liver and lung disease, sunburn, and toothaches. It was also used as an expectorant for coughs. This is one of the few times ancient medicine was actually practical. The spice of pepper easily loosens phlegm in the throat and causes the sinuses to drain. Though eating a spoonful of ground pepper is not the most pleasant thing in the world.
Today scientists believe that black pepper can also be used to boost metabolism, help fight obesity, help the body remove excess water, and help the body absorb nutrients.
Pepper is used both today and throughout history to ward off insects. You can still make a powerful insect repellant by mixing a teaspoon of ground pepper into a quart of water and spraying it on your plants. This mixture will kill ants, silverfish, potato bugs, moths, and roaches. So try spraying it around your kitchen floor if you find yourself with a particular ant problem.
Types of Pepper
Contrary to popular belief, there are actually many kinds of pepper. While there are all many kinds of pepper, they are all the same peppercorn. The type of pepper merely depends on its preparation. There are three types of pepper: black, white and green. There is also a red pepper. however red pepper is often referred to "false peppere" because it does not come from the pepper plant as the other pepper corns too. It comes from the seed of the evergreen tree, but is often used in food for decoration.
- Black Pepper
Black Pepper, for example, is producted from the green unripe fruit of the pepper plant. The fruits are "cooked" in hot water, though this is mostly to clean them. Afterwards they are set out to be dried. After they are dried they shrivel down and blacken to what we know call the black peppercorn.
- White Pepper
White pepper is created from the ripened fruit of the pepper plant. The ripe fruit is soaked in water where the flesh of the fruit will start to decompose and soften. After witch rubbing, which is referred to as retting separates the core from the soaked fruit. This core is dried and becomes a white peppercorn. Experts cannot agree whether the white peppercorn or black peppercorn is spicer. They have similar flavors, white pepper is generally used in dishes where black pepper would easily be spotted such as mashed potatoes.
- Green Pepper
Green pepper is largely unknown in the west. Like black pepper it is made from the still green unripened fruit. However, it is not dried as that would cause it to become black pepper. Green pepper has a milder flavor compared to white and black pepper. It can often be found in Thai cooking. However, because of its unpreserved nature, it can quickly decay. This is probably a good reason it is not found much outside of southeast Asia.