PEP­PERED WITH QUIRKS

Funky pep­per­corns that are hot right now

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHAR­LENE CHOW

Funky pep­per­corns that are hot right now

A pre­cious com­mod­ity dat­ing from the spice trade un­til to­day, pep­per is thought of as the king of spices. Fruit of a vine called piper ni­grum, it takes var­i­ous forms, de­pend­ing on when it is har­vested and how it is treated. Green pep­per­corns, for in­stance, are picked be­fore they are ripe and pre­served there­after. Black pep­per­corns are picked just as they are about to ripen, then boiled and left to dry in the sun. White pep­per­corns have their skins re­moved be­fore or af­ter they are dried, while rare red pep­per­corns are picked when fully ripened.

This condi­ment’s di­verse char­ac­ter and ar­ray of per­fumes make it an in­dis­pens­able ad­di­tion to any spice larder. For those of us liv­ing in South­east Asia, how priv­i­leged we are that some of the world’s largest pep­per pro­duc­ers grow these feisty elixirs right in our back­yard. Here are a few va­ri­eties that are charm­ing chefs and home cooks alike.

Fresh and Perky

Pro­duced by farm­ers in Bor­neo and mar­keted by the Malaysian Pep­per Board, Sarawak black pep­per is well-loved by chefs for its fresh, cit­rusy aro­mas, while its white pep­per com­pa­triot makes a good op­tion for its clean, sharp flavours and un­ob­tru­sive hue.

At the newly opened Madame Fan for in­stance, Sarawak black pep­per peps up a suc­cu­lent Aus­tralian rib­eye. At Restau­rant Ibid, chef Woo Wai Leong uses Sarawak white pep­per in his soy bean ice cream, sesame cake and Sarawak white pep­per meringue dessert. He says, “I use Sarawak white pep­per for its light, al­most flo­ral notes. It doesn’t have the full-bod­ied back-of-the-throat hit of most pep­pers, which isn’t de­sir­able for this par­tic­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion. In essence, it has got a clean heat which doesn’t get much in the way of other flavours. My mom is also from Kuch­ing, Sarawak, so this is one of the ways I show­case the source of my ideas and in­spi­ra­tions for Restau­rant Ibid.”

King of the Crop

Grown in Kam­pot, South­west Cam­bo­dia, prized Kam­pot pep­per comes in green, black, red and white va­ri­eties, with the lat­ter two be­ing the rarest. Kam­pot red pep­per, for one, ac­cord­ing to the Kam­pot Pep­per Pro­mo­tion As­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site, has a “pow­er­ful and fruity aroma”, while the white pep­per is strong and spicy with hints of “fresh grass and lime”.

At Cure restau­rant, chef An­drew Walsh uses Kam­pot black pep­per in his pork loin and pineap­ple dish. Says chef Walsh, “We crust the pork in Kam­pot black pep­per and ju­niper. The pep­per with its slightly flo­ral and sweet flavour re­ally en­hances the taste of the rich Iberico Pork loin. We have tried many pep­pers, but the long lin­ger­ing taste of Kam­pot pep­per is the one we pre­fer to use in the restau­rant.”

Not Just Fish Sauce

Phu Quoc Is­land, lo­cated in the Gulf of Thailand, south of Viet­nam, is of­ten a lo­ca­tion marker for top qual­ity Viet­namese fish sauce. This holds true for the coun­try’s pep­per as well. Phu Quoc black pep­per is pun­gent and spicy, mak­ing it ver­sa­tile and eas­ily used in a va­ri­ety of dishes, while its red pep­per, of­ten a dark brown­ish-red colour, has fruity, flo­ral aro­mas, and goes well with a range of meats and seafood.

Stealth Punch

Black pep­per­corns from Lam­pung is­land in Su­ma­tra, In­done­sia are shade-grown with care, and loved for their smoky aroma and sharp notes. Its rel­a­tively slow burn of as­cend­ing heat makes it a good match with a wide range of dishes and prepa­ra­tions from steaks to roasted chicken, grilled vegeta­bles to mari­nades.

Says lo­cal spice mas­ter Anthony Leow of Anthony The Spice Maker, who brings in Lam­pung black pep­per as one of his raw spices, “This spice is pun­gent and fiery. I would usu­ally rec­om­mend my cus­tomers to use it in Asian-style cook­ing such as pig’s stom­ach soup, the Sin­ga­porean favourite bak kut teh, or to sprin­kle on hot Chi­nese soup.”

Close Cousins

Be­ing un­der the Piper­aceae fam­ily, Java long pep­per is a spice that’s strictly not a pep­per at all. It is nonethe­less gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity for its woody aro­mas and com­plex flavours, in­clud­ing sharp, and even sweet notes. Re­sem­bling catkins, or fun­nel-shaped flower clus­ters, Java long pep­pers can be used with bold-flavoured cur­ries, meats or desserts.

At new all-day din­ing restau­rant in the Ma­rina Bay fi­nan­cial district, The Spot, chef Lee Boon Seng serves beef short ribs ac­com­pa­nied by a rich, lus­cious sauce that com­bines Java long pep­pers, Chi­nese wine and a wealth of other sauces.

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