By Maryann Readal
Black pepper, Piper nigrum, is a ubiquitous spice that can be found on tables anywhere in the world where food is served. But what is the story behind this popular spice that is used in kitchens the world over?
P. nigrum is native to the Malabar Coast of southern India. It is also grown in other parts of the tropical world, including Vietnam, which has taken the lead in production by exporting 287,000 tons of black pepper worth $722 million in 2019. This is about 35% of the world’s black pepper trade.
Black pepper is a perennial vine with heart shaped leaves and pendulous flowers. It is grown for its fruit, which is dried and then used as a seasoning. The black pepper vine grows in my Zone 8b garden; however, it has yet to produce any peppercorns, although it bloomed for the first time this year. Maybe one day I will have peppercorns.
“Pepper” comes from the Sanskrit word pippali, which means energy and spiritedness. When we say “peppy,” we are referring to the taste of black pepper that can “pep” us up.
Black, white, and green peppercorns come from the same plant. Black pepper is the dried, unripe fruit. White pepper is the seed of the dried, fully ripe fruit. Green pepper is the dried unripe fruit that is brined to preserve its flavor and color. Pink peppercorns are not a pepper at all, since they come from the Peruvian pepper tree, Schinus molle, which is in the cashew family.
Archaeological evidence shows that black pepper was used as a seasoning in India as early as 2000 BCE. Exportation brought it to Egypt, where it was used as a spice and as a medicine. Containers of peppercorns have been found in Egyptian tombs, and they were even found in the nostrils of Ramses II who was mummified in 1213 BCE. Egyptians were early users of toothpaste, which they made from rock salt, dried iris flowers, black pepper, and mint. Cleopatra is said to have had skin lotions made with black pepper.
With exploration came the spread of black pepper to the Roman Empire, where it was considered so valuable that large quantities were stored in the Roman treasury. The first century Roman cookbook, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome by Apicius, featured recipes in which 80% of them called for black pepper. Pliny the Elder (25-79 CE) could not understand the reason for pepper’s popularity. He remarked, “Whereas pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India!” Romans used black pepper as a treatment for digestive problems and gas relief. They also used it as currency. When Alaric the Visigoth laid siege to Rome around 400 CE, he demanded a ransom of three thousand pounds of black pepper, along with gold and silver.
After the fall of Rome, the Persians and then the Arabs were in control of the spice trade. They created fantastic, frightening stories about where pepper grew in order to scare other traders away from the source of black pepper. Their trade created a new empire – the city states of Venice and Genoa. The black pepper trade was responsible, in part, for the wealth of these two cities that sold the commodity to the rest of Europe.
Due to the high cost of trading between Europe and India, black pepper and other spices became a luxury and a symbol of wealth, as the taste for flavored foods and a belief in the medicinal qualities of spices grew. Again, it was also used as currency: a pound of black pepper could free a serf, and many a young maiden was married with a black pepper dowry.
With the explorations of Vasco Da Gama and others in the 15th century, trade in black pepper fell to the Portuguese, then to the Dutch, and then to the British East India Company. At one time, pepper accounted for 70% of the world spice trade. As it became more available, prices dropped, and more people were able to use black pepper. As a result, many world cuisines developed special spice/herb blends that included black pepper.
An amusing story about black pepper plays out in Bermuda, where each year, the 200 year old Annual Peppercorn Ceremony occurs. During this event, Freemasons present the Governor of Bermuda with one peppercorn on a cushioned silver platter in exchange for their rent of the Old State house. The idea of “peppercorn rent” is still practiced today in England and in other countries, where a nominal fee is charged to rent a property. This refers back to the time when peppercorns were used as currency.
Piperine, a key constituent in black pepper, is being explored for its antioxidant properties and as a treatment for vitiligo, which is the loss of skin pigmentation (Mihăilă et al, 2019). In addition, piperine is found to fight inflammation, improve digestion, and increase absorption of some herbal and conventional drugs (Streit, 2019). A relatively recent study showed that smelling hot pepper oil helps to reduce the craving to smoke (Cordell & Buckle, 2013).
Black pepper is used extensively in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat digestive tract problems. Traditionally, it was used to treat worms, coughs and colds, sinusitis, dental problems, diarrhea, etc. The oil was used to treat scalp infections and skin diseases.
Who would have thought that this common culinary spice played such an important role in world history? It was used to pay taxes, ransoms, rent, and dowry. As a medium of exchange, it was called black gold. It was, and still is, an important medicinal ingredient. And, it was the reason sailors set sail on perilous journeys to find a passage to India. Although no longer considered a luxury spice, the world’s demand for black pepper has not abated through the years, and continues to be an important spice in most cuisines. It has a peppery hold in many of our kitchens and still reigns as the “king of spices.”
For more information and recipes using black pepper, go to The Herbs Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage: https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html
Cordell, B. and Buckle, J. (2013). The effects of aromatherapy on nicotine cravings on a U.S. campus: A small comparison study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19 (8). Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2012.0537
Mihăilă,B., Dinică, R.M., Tatu, A.L., and Buzia, O. D. (2019). New insights in vitilago treatments using bioactive compounds from Piper nigrum. Exp Ther Med, 17 (2): 1039-1044. Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6327422/
Streit, L. (2019). Is black pepper good for you, or bad? Nutrition, uses, and more. Healthline. Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-black-pepper-good-for-you
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann Readal is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX and is a Master Gardener. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.