pteri’s ptake on peppercorns

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

Peppercorns in hues by Pteri

Black Pepper: French: poivre . German: Pfeffer . Italian: pepe nero
Spanish: pimienta negra . Arabic: filfil . Indian: gol/kala,i, mir(i)ch(i)
Indonesian: merica hitam, meritja . Lao: phik noi . Malay: lada hitam
Thai: prik ki tai

The name pepper comes from the Sanskrit word pippali meaning berry.  It was transliterated as peperi in Greek, piper in Latin, and finally pepper in English, pfeffer in German, and poivre in French.
It is one of the oldest and important spices in the world.  So important was pepper, that in ancient times it was used to pay taxes.  In 410 A.D, when the Huns lay siege of Rome, 3,000 pounds of pepper was demanded as ransom.  At times, it has been valued so highly that a single peppercorn dropped on the floor would be hunted like a lost pearl.  Pepper was much used by the Romans and in the Early Middle Ages became a status symbol of fine cookery.   Black pepper is a native to Malabar, a region on the Western Coast of South India.  It spread from India to Southeast Asia as cuttings brought by Hindu colonists migrating from India to Indonesia and other countries.  Today, most of the black pepper we have in the U.S. comes from Brazil. Ø


Both black and white pepper have been used in the East for the treatment of stomach aches, digestive problems and fever for over 4,000 years.  The Chinese used pepper to treat malaria, cholera and dysentery.  Pepper induces perspiration which eventually cools the body, thus acting as a ‘febrifuge.’  The monks of India were advised to swallow 7 to 9 grains of pepper a day to give them an endurance boost on their long treks.  Perhaps a similar dosage would be advised for those traversing the LA freeways.

Black pepper is the dried, unripe berry.  Black pepper is the generic term for peppercorns that are picked green, just as they are starting to turn red.  They are fermented briefly, then sun-dried so that the outer skin turns black while the inside remains pale.

White pepper is obtained by removing the outer part of the pericarp of the ripened berries.  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.  The flavor is less pungent than that of black pepper.

Green peppercorns are berries that are picked green, then dehydrated, freeze-dried, or liquid-packed. They have a green, “herbal” flavor and a pungency that affects the nose, much like horseradish.  The main sources are Madagascar, India, and Brazil.

Pink pepper, which is not a vinous pepper, comes from the French island of Réunion.  Pink peppercorns have a brittle, papery pink skin enclosing a hard, irregular seed, much smaller than the whole fruit.

Pepper is best purchased whole, as freshly ground pepper is vastly superior to the ready ground powder. Whole peppercorns keep their flavor indefinitely but quickly lose aroma and heat after it has been ground. Some peppercorns have such a subtle aroma that they can’t be determined until they have been ground.


Cracked Black Peppercorn Mustard is a quick, easy-to-prepare mustard with a distinctive peppercorn flavor. Its assertive flavor is excellent on dark breads, smoked meats, and makes a perfect coating for steaks or burgers before grilling.
0. 1/4 cup whole yellow mustard seeds
0. 1/4 cup champagne vinegar
0. 1/4 cup hot water
0. 2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black peppercorns
0. 1 teaspoon garlic powder
0. 1/2 teaspoon salt
Place the mustard seeds in a spice mill or coffee grinder and process until finely ground. Combine the mustard and vinegar in a bowl and stir to mix. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes. Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Spoon the mustard in a sterilized jar, cover and refrigerate for 1 week before using. Yield: 1/2 cup