Citizens, there can be no equivocation whatsoever that the Sultan of Spice – YOUR TFD – nurtures a profound love for the peppercorn that today is ubiquitous on even the most humble of tables around the world. People have sadly forgotten that pepper was once more valuable than GOLD per ounce and only graced the dishes of the most powerful and wealthy of nobles throughout Europe for millennia. The Indian state of Kerala is the ancestral home of pepper and I will share one of its best recipes – peppercorn shrimp – with TFD Nation, starting now!
Black pepper, (Piper nigrum), also called pepper, is a perennial climbing vine of the family Piperaceae and the hotly pungent spice made from its fruits is the world’s most prevalent spice. Black pepper is native to the Malabar Coast of India in Kerala and is one of the earliest spices extant and has always been treasured throughout human history. Widely used as a spice around the world, pepper also has a limited usage in medicine as a carminative (to relieve flatulence) and as a stimulant of gastric secretions. FYI, the name “Malabar Coast” really means “Pepper Coast.”
Pepper was the most pungent spice of all available for Europeans and Asians for thousands of years (the chili pepper is native to South America and only came to be used elsewhere due to Spanish and Portuguese explorers). Black pepper would keep in storage for a good long time, which meant even after months or years of travel across the Arabian Sea from the west, across the Indian Ocean from the east to Europe, it was still good on arrival.
In early historic times pepper was widely cultivated in the tropics of Southeast Asia, where it became highly regarded as a condiment. Pepper became an important article of overland trade between India and Europe and often served as a medium of exchange; tributes were levied in pepper in ancient Greece and Rome.
In the Middle Ages the Venetians and the Genoese became the main distributors in Europe, and their virtual monopoly of the trade helped instigate the search for an eastern sea route. The plant is widely cultivated throughout Indonesia and has been introduced into tropical areas of Africa and of the Western Hemisphere.
The plant requires a long rainy season, fairly high temperatures, and partial shade for best growth. Propagation is usually by stem cuttings, which are set out near a tree or a pole that will serve as a support. Pepper plants are sometimes interspersed in tea or coffee plantations. They begin bearing in 2 to 5 years and may produce for as long as 40 years. The fruits are picked when they begin to turn red. The collected fruits are immersed in boiling water for about 10 minutes, which causes them to turn dark brown or black in an hour.
Then they are spread out to dry in the sun for three or four days. The whole peppercorns, when ground, yield black pepper. White pepper is obtained by removing the dark outer part of the pericarp, and the flavor is less pungent than that of black pepper. The outer coating is softened either by keeping the berries in moist heaps for 2 or 3 days or by keeping them in sacks submerged in running water for 7 to 15 days, depending on the region.
The softened outer coating is then removed by washing and rubbing or by trampling, and the berries are spread in the sun to dry. Whole white pepper can also be prepared by grinding off the outer coating mechanically.
As noted in this excerpted article from Go World Travel magazine:
Before that day, I had never really considered where my spices came from. Nor had I thought about the process that took place for them to look the way they did in my spice cabinet. If you had told me that spices played a role in my citizenship as an American, I would have been completely puzzled.
Our guide, Siad, led us through the lush farm, pausing from tree to tree. Growing up on his grandma’s spice plantation, he had been surrounded by spices and learned their medicinal properties at a young age. Now, Siad passed the information along to those who visited.
He gestured toward a vine of green kernels dangling from a jackfruit tree. Clustered together, they looked like strings of tiny pearls. “This is pepper. In India, we call it the king of spices.”
Siad explained the importance of black pepper in Indian cooking and medicine. A central ingredient in masalas and often used in Ayurvedic practices, black pepper helps reduce fever, asthma, and gas.
Black Pepper, Known as Black Gold, Sparked the Spice Trade
Long ago, the black pepper vine was indigenous only to South India, and it became highly prized for medicinal, spiritual and culinary uses. It could also be stored for extended periods of time. As the king of spices, black pepper was dubbed “black gold” and propelled the spice trade forward.
Some theorize that the Romans began trading with India in the first century—there are mentions of India and black pepper as early as A.D. 77 in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. But perhaps the most significant move in the spice trade was explorer Vasco da Gama’s journey to India in 1497.
Da Gama sought to create a trade route for Portugal through the Atlantic to India. His expedition wasn’t without brutality. Da Gama’s ships were equipped with a cannon, and he was said to have terrorized other ships on the sea, ransacking their goods and then burning the ships.
Two years later, when da Gama returned to Portugal, less than half of his original crew remained. Aggressively, da Gama had pulled off the first transatlantic trip from Europe to India and monopolized the spice market.
Portugal’s monopoly didn’t last long though, and it kickstarted a series of events that led to the creation of the Dutch and British East India companies. For hundreds of years, India, Holland, Britain, and Portugal would continue fighting for power in a spice war before the British completely took over.
Black Pepper Vines Thrive in Kerala, India’s Climate
No longer the world’s largest producer of black pepper, Kerala’s climate is still optimal for plant growth. A twin monsoon washes the vine and pollinates the plants, encouraging high-quality fruit to flourish. In fact, legend has it that when da Gama requested to take a vine home with him, the king granted him permission, knowing that without the Kerala climate, the vine would be useless in Portugal.
The tenacious vines wind their way up to the sky in search for sunlight, climbing whichever tree or stick that gets them closer. The best of the fruits are typically at great heights, and thus, black pepper is only harvested by men in Kerala. Women, dressed in saris, would have a difficult time climbing up trees to pluck the plants, Siad explained.
As further elucidated in this (edited) story from Taste:
Size, the foreman told me, is the most reliable way to identify the best-tasting peppercorns, and exotic-sounding terms like Tellicherry and Malibar refer to the grade of the dried berries accumulating in those buckets, not where they were grown. In fact, all peppercorns, be they black, white, or green, are the same plant, a vine called piper negrum, and any talk of “varietals” is really just marketing hype. (The exception is pink peppercorns, which, it turns out, are not pepper at all but a member of the cashew family.)
The pepper plant is a climbing vine that put out slender, grape-like clusters of berries called spikes three to four inches long. As Kai Stark, purchasing manager at Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa, explains, the berries growing closest to the vine tend to siphon off the lion’s share of the nutrients coming from the main plant.
These larger, more mature berries develop a higher sugar content than the less well-nourished specimens at the tip of the spike, and because the entire spike is harvested at once, you get a range of flavor concentrations on each one. That’s why the sifting and sorting is critical.
Beyond that, provenance does make a difference. Though Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Vietnam all produce peppercorns for export, Indian product is considered among the best in the world. Stark advises cooks to look for consistency of size, which shows the pepper has been graded; larger berries tend to be more rounded in their flavor, not simply biting.
You also want peppercorns with consistent dark, not light brown, color, although some growers try to make their peppercorns look dark and shiny by rolling them in oil. And as with any crop, look for pepper that’s been organically grown.
Freshness is another essential consideration—even when pepper is “freshly ground,” it isn’t necessarily fresh. Most of pepper’s aroma comes from the black outer skin (that’s why white pepper, which has had the flavorful skin removed, doesn’t taste like much); when the peppercorns are old, dried out, and exposed to air for long periods, like any other spice, the flavor dissipates, leaving just the heat without the lovely bouquet and floral quality.
Look for spices marked with a packing date so you’ll know how long your pepper has been off the vine, and refill your grinder frequently, storing the bulk of your peppercorns in an airtight container to ensure you get the most out of each grind.
My version of this famous Keralese dish makes exceptional use of not just black peppercorns, but also the white and green variants as well – I find using all three varies the flavor profile to include a more nuanced balance of spice to my palate. Feel free to use all black pepper if you so prefer, as it is the traditional recipe. I’ve also tweaked the accompanying spice masala to include a few extra spices that further round out the tongue-tingling nature of this particular dish.
Most of these spices are easily found in your grocery store or spice vendor – curry leaves may be found in any good Indian grocery store or they may be ordered online here. Tamarind paste is found here and whole mace can be purchased here. Green peppercorns in brine may be purchased here, jaggery brown sugar is found on Amazon here, excellent ghee is found here and top-quality coconut oil is easily found at this link.
Citizens, this is a recipe guaranteed to tingle your taste buds and exemplify the TRUE taste of Kerala on your dinner table – I have every confidence this will become a new favorite dish of yours, and I hope you sing My praises in a holy choir of gustatory hagiographies worthy of the name of TFD! 😀
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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