It adds energy and spirit to a variety of cuisines. Master chef Sanjeev Kapoor on the vital kitchen spice pepper.Updated: May 03, 2008 15:10 IST
Flashback 1840. If someone meant to use the word ‘spirit' or ‘energy' they would say ‘pepper.' Then slang happened (as usual) and pepper became pep. So, in this 21st century, if you want to motivate someone, give them a ‘pep' talk but if you want to motivate a cook, hand him or her a good quality pepper mill.
The pepper remains a vital spice in our kitchens today. Check any laid out table. There will be a cruet set with salt and pepper. Why not red chilli powder, at least in India, as Italians keep paprika? <b1>
Let me tell you right away - get yourself a good quality pepper mill. The plastic ones are not as effective or as durable as a wooden sturdy mill with a strong metal grinding apparatus.
Go to any good Italian restaurant and you will be offered a large wooden pepper mill to sprinkle your pasta with freshly crushed peppercorns. Once you begin to use the peppercorns in the correct way, the flavour of your food will change for the better.
Important role in history
Peppercorns - black, white and green (and pink in brine too) are an ancient spice. Records of the use of pepper go back as far as the 4th century BC. It has been mentioned as pippali in Sanskrit. Like salt, it was a precious spice.
The Arabs grew rich furnishing the Romans with pepper, and ancient Roman grocers often blended juniper berries in with peppercorns to stretch the product and increase their profits.
There was even a time when pepper was worth its weight in gold. This spice probably changed the course of histo ry, being the single most impor tant factor in the European search for sea routes to the east. This quest for pepper dominated the spice trade for centuries, and without it, the colonial empires of history might not have existed.
Varieties India is the world's foremost producer with Kerala's Alleppey and Tellicherry varieties being the best. They have a clean, aromatic and slightly less pungent flavour than other black peppers.
The Singapore black pepper, grown on the Malay peninsula, also has a distinct taste. It gets its particular taste due to the local method of drying. The berries are spread to dry on suspended mats with a herb fire smoldering beneath them. The smoke both dries and flavours the berries.
The Lampong from Indonesia, the Brazilian black peppercorns (outer skin is black and the centre is creamy white), the Chinese and Sri Lankan pepper (Ceylon pepper) are the best one gets today.
Know the plant
The plant is a perennial climber with dark green leaves and spikes of white flowers. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is a small drupe five millimetres in diameter, dark red when fully mature, containing a single seed. The pepper plant takes about eight years to reach maturity and, in good conditions, it will continue to bear fruit for up to 20 years.
The colour story
Green peppercorns are harvested while still unripe. Their flavour is somewhat milder and fruitier, but not entirely without spice. Once totally sun-dried, they become the more commonly used black peppercorns.
For white pepper the same berries are left on the plant until fully ripe and red in colour. They are then soaked and peeled to expose the inner white corns, which are then dried. The flavour is less piquant than that of black pepper.
Delight in cooking
White pepper is used in white sauces or soups. However it contributes little heat. The aromatic flavour of pepper resides largely in its skin, so unless you feel strongly about the presence of black specks in an austere white sauce, there is no need to buy white pepper.
It can flavour breads and cheeses, and season forcemeats like sausages and frankfurters. Whole peppercorns are even used to flavour stocks. Pepper is a main ingredient in chai masala and garam masala. Sprinkle some freshly crushed pepper on a hot soup. It is manna for the throat especially with a cold. Top cream (malai) mixed it is also good for cough.
Brined green peppercorns should be used within 4-6 weeks and should be kept in the refrigerator. Pepper loses flavour and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve the pepper's original spiciness longer.
Pepper is also a stimulant. It also helps those with gastric and intestinal distention. Tea made from black pepper helps in discharging excess mucus from lungs and curing diseases of throat and mouth.
Try freshly crushed peppercorns on a bowlful of fruits in cream. Or this season on mangoes in cream. Try it and you will know what the word pep really means!
(The writer is a master chef, author and television host. Reach him on email@example.com)