Family: Piperaceae | Place of Origin: Malabar Coast of India
Origins and history:
First cultivated around 1500 BCE when records show that it was used in traditional Indian cooking, around this time it had made it to Egypt where it was part of the mummification process along with being widely consumed and used as a medicine in most parts of the old world. It was widely regarded as the “king” of spices, even called “black gold” until recent history. It was extensively traded, especially on the Silk Road as it was seen at not only a culinary spice but also thought to have incredible health benefits.
Current areas where is it grown: Most cultivation continues to be in India but Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil are also major producers. Vietnam is now the largest exporter with 285,000 tons being exported annually with kg. costing about $12.
- General: Climbing vine, tropical understory plant, partial sun, moist soil.
- Leaf morphology: Leaves are alternating on the stem, almond shaped, tapered towards the tip. Leaves have a glossy, dark green top side, pale green and not glossy underside.
- Fruit and Floral morphology: Flowers are small, colored whiteish to yellow/green with 50-150 clustered on a spike (inflorescence). Fruits are round, colored dark green when unripe and a rich red when ripe and arranged on a spike.
- Scent: Scent is hot, pungent, floral, fresh, and earthy.
- Distinctive features: Peppercorns (fruits) as described above, scent of the peppercorns, and leaf morphology.
Uses and preparation
Preparation: The specific part used is the peppercorn. Drying causes the skin of the unripe fruit to adhere to the seed and increases the pepper flavor due to the piperine compound found in the skin. Washing is done by boiling the unripe fruit until it turns that dark brown/black color, less pungent than drying but faster. Needs to be ground up after processing to release the flavor. Red, white, green and black peppercorns are all from Piper nigrum just prepared and dried in various ways. Pink peppercorns however are not from Piper nigrum, they are from Schinus molle, commonly known as the Peruvian peppertree which is unrelated to Piper nigrum.
Medicinal uses: Has been used since 1500 BCE as a traditional medicine. Found to be good at alleviating gastrointestinal issues and contains high amounts of the compound piperine.