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Indian Pepper

What it is?

Indian Pepper (kala mirchi) is one of the original spices. I say 'Indian pepper' partly to distinguish between chilli pepper and other things, and also to make the point that the peppercorns that we commonly use do originate from India.

It is mostly grown in Southern India, particularly in Kerala on the Malabar coast, and all over Southern Asia,

Although it appears that there are lots of different peppercorns, they mostly come from the same source. To start at the beginning, the berries of the piper nigrum plant can be picked unripe when they are green. You can now do one of two things with them.

If you dehydrate them quickly they will end up green and are then usually stored in brine. These are used mostly in French and other Western cuisine (e.g. steak au poivre) and not much used in Indian cooking. If instead, you let them dry slowly in the sun, this will ferment the berries and you will end up with the traditional black peppercorns. This is the spice mostly used in Indian food.

If you let the berries ripen more before picking them, they become a pinky-yellow colour. They then have the skin removed by water treatment before they are dried in the sun to become white. These are much more commonly used in Western cuisine than in Indian.

Other varieties are pink (which come from the berries of the Brazilian pepper tree) and Szechuan (which come from the Chinese prickly ash tree) are not related and not used in Indian cuisine.

History

The King of Spices as pepper is often called is native to India where it has been grown since prehistoric times, it has been used in Indian cooking for at least 4000 years. It is not known how or exactly when it reached Egypt, but it was used as part of the embalming process (The nose of Rameses II was stuffed with peppercorns apparently to stop it being flattened by the wrapping cloths)

During the Roman Empire the first trade routes to the Malibar coast of Southern India were established and so this and other spices were brought to Europe. It was however extremely valuable; it was once so valuable that, when trading, peppercorns were counted out individually and when the Visigoths captured Rome in 410 A.D. they demanded 3000 pounds of fine Indian peppercorns from the Romans as ransom - it was more valuable than gold.

The trade was long monopolized by Italy but by the Middle Ages the Portuguese found their way to India and attempted to take control the trade. This proved largely unsuccessful and actually provoked an increase in the supply of this and other valuable spices, mostly via smuggling, and this reduced the value of the commodity.

Cooking

Indian pepper is known for its pungency and aroma. Although not as fiery as chilli pepper it will certainly give a kick to a dish. The substance that makes it hot piperine is only about 1% as hot as capsaicin which is what makes chillies hot.

It was thought that in the middle ages it was used to disguise bad meat, but this is unlikely since it was a such an expensive spice that it was the preserve of the rich. It is likely that it was used to flavour meat which had been salted to preserve it.

The later in the cooking process that you add it, the more aroma it will retain, and indeed it is often sprinkled onto food after cooking.

Do not grind more than you need. It loses it pungency very quickly after being ground.

Nutrition

Indian pepper contains a lot of dietary fibre and lots of minerals - particularly manganese. It also contains large qualities of Vitamin K, which helps blood to clot properly.

It is said to be a digestive and is recommended for stomach upsets. As it raises body temperature, it is also used to treat fevers and chills.





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