Pep­per­corn—a spice for all rea­sons and sea­sons

T. Dining by Singapore Tatler - - Content -

We pon­der the worldly in­flu­ence of one of gas­tron­omy’s most widely used spices—pep­per­corns

It may be the most quo­tid­ian of spices to­day, but pep­per­corns were once a pre­cious com­mod­ity in the Mid­dle Ages, when they were worth more than their weight in sil­ver. Euro­pean mer­chants in the 15th cen­tury cul­ti­vated their wealth through the sale of pep­per­corns, with the Vene­tians mark­ing prices up to an av­er­age of 40 per cent. Arab traders, mean­while, guarded their own stash by spin­ning a tale of how pep­per trees in

In­dia were guarded by poi­sonous ser­pents. To har­vest the pep­pers, they claimed, the trees had to be burnt to drive the snakes away, in the process turn­ing the white fruit of the pep­per trees black.

That, as the Bri­tish might say, is hog­wash. Black pep­per­corns are sim­ply the cooked and dried un­ripe fruit of the pep­per plant (Piper ni­grum). In fact, black, green and white pep­per­corns are the same fruit. Their colour is merely the re­flec­tion of the vary­ing stages of de­vel­op­ment and pro­cess­ing meth­ods.

Pep­per­corns start out as small clus­ters of white flow­ers that take three to four years to de­velop into berries. The un­ripe berries, or pep­per­corns, are green and turn red as they ripen in the sun. Black pep­per­corns are made by pick­ing the pep­per berries when they are half-ripe and leav­ing them to dry and darken, while white pep­per­corns are pro­cessed by pick­ing pep­per­corns at their ripest and sub­se­quently soak­ing them in brine to re­move their dark outer shells.

Pink pep­per­corns come from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent plant species (Sch­i­nus molle) and har­bour a dif­fer­ent taste pro­file. Sichuan pep­per­corns are de­rived from the husks sur­round­ing the seeds of the prickly ash bush.


Though na­tive to In­dia, the most highly re­garded pep­per­corns to­day come from all over the world. Some of them, like Kam­pot pep­pers (from the re­gion of the same name in Cam­bo­dia) and Tel­licherry pep­per­corns from In­dia, are cer­ti­fied re­gional prod­ucts, much like cham­pagne or San Marzano toma­toes.

As with wine, ter­roir and pro­cess­ing play a large part in a pep­per­corn’s re­sult­ing flavour. Tel­licherry pep­pers, for in­stance, are typ­i­cally al­lowed to ripen for a longer time be­fore they are picked, so they get the lux­ury of de­vel­op­ing more in­trigu­ing and com­plex notes that are grassy and fresh.

Kam­pot pep­pers, which grow in quartz-rich soil and rainy weather at the foot of Kam­pot’s moun­tains, have a no­tably sweet, flo­ral flavour that lingers on the tongue. Sichuan pep­per­corns—the finest of which grow in their na­tive prov­ince—boast an aro­matic lemony flavour, leav­ing a dis­tinct numb­ing sen­sa­tion on the tongue.

The best way to ex­pe­ri­ence the am­brosial com­plex­i­ties of pep­per­corns is to grind them fresh, just be­fore us­ing. A light dust­ing of ground pep­per­corns can be as trans­portive as a dab of per­fume—a lit­tle goes a long way in de­liv­er­ing aro­matic plea­sure and the sen­sa­tion of de­li­cious pos­si­bil­i­ties.

PRETTY PEPPERY (Op­po­site) Folk­lore’s hati babi bunkus fea­tures pig’s heart wrapped in caul; (left) Zaf­fer­ano’s roasted pork ten­der­loin; (above) Odette’s crusted pi­geon breast

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