Cooking History, Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 2: India

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Welcome back to my series about pepper, the king of spices. Last week I have introduced you to pepper grown in Cambodia and Vietnam. But it was neither Cambodia nor Vietnam where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed with his ship on his legendary journey to change world history forever. Six years after Christopher Columbus had failed to reach the Malabar coast of India in 1492, Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, India, in 1498.

Today, I’m going to talk about:

  • The history of the pepper trade
  • How pepper is produced
  • The qualities of pepper produced in India and how to identify them

A brief historical background about pepper cultivation and trade

Historically, pepper was wild forest produce that was collected by local people and then sold on the markets in India. It is unknown when exactly the plant was domesticated for mass production. The earliest mention of pepper dates back to ancient Egypt. In Eber’s papyrus, an Egyptian collection of ancient herbal knowledge from 1550 BC, pepper is mentioned as a remedy for diseases. Wild forest pepper made its way to ancient Egypt through Arab merchants who made a fortune selling pepper until Europe established a safe sea route to India and colonized almost the entire world.

The Arabian domination of the pepper trade was only shortly interrupted when Rome captured Egypt in 30 BC. From the ancient Egyptian ports, it was possible for the Romans to sail to India through the Red Sea. In the picture below, you can see the Roman sea route to India.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Indo-Roman_trade.jpg
The Roman trade route that connected Rome with India via the Egyptian seaports. Picture Source: Wikipedia.

As you can see, it was essential for Rome to control Egypt to have access to the Red Sea which is called the Arabian Gulf on the map above. However, after almost 700 years of Roman rule, the Arabic world succeeded in 646 with the Muslim conquest of Egypt. The sea route to India was shut down for Europe. In the map below, you can see a world map from 650, four years after the fall of Egypt.

File:Byzantiumby650AD.svg
The Mediterranean area after the fall of Egypt (650 AD). Picture Source: Wikipedia.

The only way to get to India for Europeans now was to establish a sea route around the African continent. It was Vasco da Gama who succeeded with that mission almost 850 years after the fall of Egypt. But before we talk about European colonialism, I want to briefly outline what happened during the time of the Arabian domination of the pepper trade.

Not only the Arabs and Europeans were consumers of pepper. In the year 851, the Persian traveler Sulaiman recorded the black pepper cultivation in India and trade with China. China was the country that controlled the East Asian pepper trade. By 1200, China imported large quantities of pepper from the Malabar coast and Java, Indonesia. Pepper had made its way to Malaysia and Indonesia in the 10th century through the South Indian Kings Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra who had conquered the Malay archipelago and the Indonesian islands Java and Bali.

The pepper trade between India and China reached its zenith during the Middle ages from 1405 to 1433. At that time, the quantity of pepper purchased by the Chinese was almost equal to the quantity that was imported to Europe. One of the main reasons why pepper cultivation spread across the Southeast Asian countries was a great demand for pepper from China.

The end of Arabian and Chinese domination

The Arabs and the Chinese were making a fortune from the pepper trade until European countries became the dominating power of the world. After Vasco da Gama had reached the Malabar coast of India in 1498, the Portuguese king sent battleships to India to colonialize the West Coast of the country. The Portuguese operation was a huge financial success. The local population was exploited and every acre of land capable of growing pepper and ginger was cultivated in the Indian province of Kerala.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Caminho_maritimo_para_a_India.png
The Portuguese sea route to India (in black). Picture Source: Wikipedia.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/A_partida_de_Vasco_da_Gama_para_a_%C3%8Dndia_em_1497.jpg
Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India was one of the key events in world history.

The Portuguese domination of the Malabar coast was broken in the early 17th century by the Dutch. However, the Dutch domination of the Malabar coast lasted for less than 100 years. It was the British who arrived in India in the late 17th century. They remained the dominant European power in India until the end of British colonial rule in 1947. The Dutch, on the other hand, focused on cultivating pepper in the Dutch East Indies which is modern-day Indonesia.

File:Overwinningh van de Stadt Cotchin op de Kust van Mallabaer - Victory over Kochi on the coast of Malabar.jpg
After the Portuguese, the Dutch dominated the Malabar coast of India for a short period in history.
Datei:Clive.jpg
Of all the European powers, Great Britain had the greatest impact on India.

Nowadays, we can buy pepper not only from India and Southeast Asia but also from South America and tropical African Regions. Yet, pepper wasn’t introduced to Brazil until 1933. It was Japanese immigrants who first started growing pepper there on a commercial scale. The operation was a huge success. Nowadays, Brazil is the fourth-largest pepper producer worldwide after Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. Vietnam started to grow pepper on a large scale after the Vietnam War in the 1980s. However, the quality of Vietnamese pepper is not very good as I have explained to you in my last post that outlines the differences between Vietnamese and Kampot pepper.

How pepper is produced

Black, white, green, and red pepper all come from the same plant: Piper nigrum. The pepper plant is easy to grow in tropical climates. The part of the pepper plant that we eat are its fruits: the peppercorn berries.

Depending on the region, it takes about 5 to 8 months until the peppercorns have fully matured. In Indonesia, peppercorns are harvested after 5 to 6 months while they grow slower in India where it takes 7 to 8 months until the peppercorn berries can be harvested.

When they are harvested also depends on the type of pepper you want to produce:

  • Green pepper gets harvested before the peppercorns are fully mature. The berries can be eaten fresh or brined.
  • Black pepper gets harvested when the peppercorns are fully mature yet not fully ripe. The pepper is green or yellow and turns black when dried.
  • Red pepper and white pepper get harvested when the peppercorns have turned red and have fully ripened.

It is not a bad thing that black pepper is harvested unripe. In fact, the essential oil and piperine concentration in the peppercorns increase until the peppercorns reach full maturity. They subsequently decrease during the ripening stage. Piperine is the main flavor component of pepper that is responsible for its spicy taste.

Pfefferkorn, Ernte, organisch, Pfeffer, würzen, natürlich, Lebensmittel, Essen und Trinken, gesundes Essen, Pflanze, Obst, Frische, grüne Farbe, Wachstum, Landwirtschaft, Baum, Olive, Natur, Tag, Gemüse, Grüne Olive, Fokus auf den Vordergrund, große gruppe von gegenständen, Container, Land, keine Leute, draußen, reif, Plantage, 4K, CC0, gemeinfrei, lizenzfrei
Peppercorns for the processing of black pepper being harvested. You can see that some peppercorns have already started to turn red.

Traditionally, the peppercorns were separated from the spikes by trampling with the legs. This, of course, is not very hygienic. Nowadays, mechanical threshers can be used for this task.

For the production of white pepper, before drying, the red peppercorns get steeped in water to remove the outer skin. This technique is called the rotting or retting technique. It’s because the peppercorns get fermented in the water for up to one week. This changes the flavor of the pepper. During fermentation, fecal off-flavors are often formed which give white pepper its characteristic taste that is not very appealing to a lot of Western people.

You have never experienced a fecal-off taste in white pepper? Well, that’s because most of the white pepper that is sold in Europe and the US has not been fermented. The peppercorns can, for example, be steamed before drying to soften the skin and then remove it. Or the skin can be peeled off through the addition of enzymes. Or you can convert dried black pepper into white pepper by peeling it mechanically.

Datei:Piper nigrum Dried fruits with and without pericarp - Penja Cameroun.jpg
White pepper is harvested when the peppercorns have fully ripened. Before drying, the outer skin layer gets removed.

The drying of the pepper berries is the most important processing step. Traditionally, pepper is sun-dried for 4 to 7 days to bring the moisture content down from 60-70 % to below 10 %. The pepper needs to be turned regularly during drying to achieve an even drying result and to prevent mold from growing. Besides sun-drying, the pepper berries can also be machine-dried.

Black pepper turns black during drying because enzymes and atmospheric oxygen oxidize the green-colored chlorophyll pigment as well as other phenolic compounds. The red color of fully ripened peppercorns, on the other hand, doesn’t get destroyed during drying.

In some cases, the peppercorns are blanched before sun-drying to reduce the bacterial count. However, growers need to be very careful with this procedure. If the pepper is blanched for too long the enzyme activity gets reduced to a minimum. The pepper thus doesn’t develop its signature black color.

After drying, impurities like spikes, stones, or soil particles have to be removed from the peppercorns. Following that, the pepper is graded and packaged.

How pepper is graded

On the internet, there’s a lot of misinformation about the different kinds of peppers available for sale from India. What is Kampot pepper to the Europeans, Tellichery pepper seems to be to the Americans. Especially American spice retailers like to come up with all kinds of stories of how Tellichery pepper is only grown in the Indian town Tellichery or how it is grown with higher quality standards than Malabar pepper. These are all fairytales.

More than 100 different cultivars of the pepper plant (Piper nigrum) are cultivated in India. The main pepper producing areas are Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and the North Eastern States. The most commonly grown cultivars of the pepper plant are Kottanadan, Balankotta, Neelamundi, Narayakodi, Arakulamunda, Kalluvally, and Aimpiriyan. However, the type of cultivar, or the area the pepper was grown in, has in most cases no influence on the labeling of the pepper in Europe or America.

Pfeffer, Pfefferkörner, schwarz, Über, getrocknet, Scharf, würzen, schließen, drinnen, große gruppe von gegenständen, Essen und Trinken, Lebensmittel, Fülle, braun, Stillleben, Nahansicht, keine Leute, High Angle View, Frische, Tabelle, selektiver Fokus, Wohlbefinden, gesundes Essen, Zutat, schwarzes Pfefferkorn, Vollbild, Haufen, Snack, 2K, CC0, gemeinfrei, lizenzfrei
The peppercorns get graded according to their size after drying.

The pepper from India is graded according to its size and bulk density. The most commonly exported type of pepper from India is obviously black pepper. The peppercorns get graded depending on their quality as:

  • Light pepper
  • Malabar pepper
  • Tellichery pepper

Light pepper is usually just sold under the name black pepper without any further specification and is regarded as a standard quality product. The Malabar and Tellichery peppercorns fulfill a higher quality standard and are thus regarded as premium products. The different grades of pepper are obtained by sifting the peppercorns through a sieve to separate them according to their size. They all come from the same plant.

In the table below, you can see the product specifications for Indian peppercorns:

Grade of pepperDiameter [mm]Bulk Density [g/L]
Light Peppersmaller than 3.75at least 400
Malabar Pepper3.75 – 4.0at least 550
Tellichery Garbled4.0 – 4.25at least 550
Tellichery Garbled extra bold4.25 – 4.75at least 550
Tellichery Garbled special extra boldlarger than 4.75at least 550

Why are large peppercorns with a high bulk density considered a high-quality product? The reason is quite simple: It has to do with the ripeness of the peppercorns. Black pepper is harvested when the peppercorns are fully mature yet shortly before they have fully ripened. During the maturation process, the peppercorns get denser.

You might know this phenomenon from coffee production. Coffee cherries are separated by floating the harvest in water. The ripe cherries have a higher density than water and sink to the bottom while unripe or overripe cherries have a lower density than water and float on the top.

The density of peppercorns also increases during maturation. It remains relatively constant from the time the peppercorns reach full maturity until the peppercorns have fully ripened and turned red. But if the peppercorns are harvested before they are fully mature, their density is lower. A high density thus indicates that the peppercorns were picked at the perfect stage of maturity which guarantees maximum flavor.

If the peppercorns for black pepper are left to ripen on the vine a bit longer than usual, they grow in size but their density decreases a little during ripening because they don’t gain any more mass. If they are fully ripe, they are sold as red or white pepper. Black Tellichery peppercorns are harvested shortly before the peppercorns are fully ripe and they typically have a higher maturity level than light or Malabar peppercorns.

Grün, Pfefferkorn, Ernte, Pfeffer, Landwirtschaft, würzen, Obst, Essen und Trinken, Lebensmittel, Wachstum, Pflanze, gesundes Essen, Baum, Natur, Fokus auf den Vordergrund, grüne Farbe, Tag, Blatt, Pflanzenteil, keine Leute, Frische, Schönheit in der Natur, Nahansicht, draußen, Wohlbefinden, reif, Plantage, 4K, CC0, gemeinfrei, lizenzfrei
Immature peppercorns have a smaller density than mature and ripe peppercorns.

If you have a fruit tree in your garden then you know that fruits don’t ripen uniformly. But usually, you still harvest all of them at the same time. Some might be overripe at that point while others might be a little underripe. This is the reason why different grades of peppercorns exist. Once the first peppercorns on the vine start to turn red or yellow the spikes are nipped off. Most of the peppercorns are still green at this point. They turn black once you dry them. The higher the maturity of them, the larger they are usually. If they are not fully mature, on the other hand, they will be small and have a low density.

How does Indian pepper taste?

For today’s taste test, I want to compare four different kinds of pepper from the Indian subcontinent:

  • Light pepper from Sri Lanka
  • Malabar pepper from Kerala
  • Tellichery pepper from Kerala
  • Banasura pepper from Kerala

Banasura pepper is a special type of pepper that is grown in the highlands of Kerala. The peppercorns are left to ripen on the vine a little longer than usual. Therefore, they are very large in size and super aromatic. Yet, as you will see from my results, the Banasura peppercorns that I purchased didn’t fulfill the density requirements to be labeled as Tellichery pepper. As I told you before, the density and piperine content of the peppercorns slightly decreases during ripening. So from a grading point of view, my sample would be considered as light pepper.

If you own measuring cups then it is very easy to measure the density of pepper.

My sensory analysis was performed in the same way as for Kampot pepper. I measured the diameter and density of the peppercorns. Then I judged their color, smell, and taste.

Light pepper from Sri Lanka

I had purchased the Sri Lanka light pepper from a German supermarket. It was labeled as organic black pepper without any further indication of the grade. As I told you before, if the pepper is not labeled as Malabar or Tellichery pepper, then it is usually light pepper. It was easy to confirm that. While the peppercorns had a diameter of roughly 4 millimeters, their density was only 525 grams per liter. The color of the peppercorns was also light to medium brown instead of dark brown or black. This means that this pepper was harvested a bit too early to achieve the highest possible quality.

Sri Lanka Pepper
Diameter4 millimeters
Density525 grams per liter
Colorlight to medium brown
SmellThe pine aroma is very pronounced. Adding to that, the smell is earthy and even a bit musty. The pepper doesn’t smell very pungent but reminds me very much of the forest. The smell isn’t sweet or warm.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pine
Earthy/ Musty
Little spiciness and pungency
TasteThe heat spreads very quickly in the mouth. It even burns a bit unpleasantly. Overall, the heat is not very evenly distributed but concentrated in the back of the mouth. The pepper tastes very earthy and woody, slightly bitter, but not very warm or sweet. Besides the heat, the aroma is very mild and not too complex. There is almost no aftertaste expect a very long-lasting heat.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Earthy
Woody
Slightly bitter

Overall, the light Sri Lankan pepper is a solid choice. Although there is not much flavor complexity because the peppercorns have been harvested too early to develop the warming notes we know from black pepper. The peppercorns deliver a pretty one-dimensional heat. This is a great pepper for cooking but I wouldn’t recommend putting it into a pepper mill that is used to season food on the table. It lacks the more subtle flavors that make pepper a specialty.

Malabar pepper from Kerala

The Malabar pepper was not much bigger than the light Sri Lanka pepper although I noticed that it was slightly darker. Nevertheless, the biggest difference between both samples was the smell. It was very noticeable that the Malabar pepper probably had a higher volatile oil content than the light Sir Lanka pepper because the peppercorns were maturer during harvest.

Malabar Pepper
Diameter4 millimeters
Density550 grams per liter
ColorLight to medium-dark brown
SmellThe Malabar peppercorns smell sweet and aromatic. They are not horribly pungent yet the pine aroma is very pronounced with an earthy undertone. Overall, a very warm and comforting smell that lacks the minty and eucalyptus notes you find in Kampot pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pine
Sweet Aromatic
Spicy
Pungent
Earthy
TasteThe heat spreads quickly over the entire mouth but it isn’t too aggressive. The taste is woody, earthy, with a pleasant warmth. The spiciness lasts for a very long time on the tongue yet other aroma compounds are not very noticeable in the aftertaste.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Warm
Musty/ Earthy
Woody

Malabar pepper is an excellent choice if you appreciate pepper not just for its spicy taste but also for its comforting warmth. Overall, this pepper is an excellent choice for cooking and garnishing dishes. I think it works very well in stews and other long-cooked dishes, especially combined with other spices like caraway seeds, fennel, or star anise.

Tellichery pepper from Kerala

Let’s get to the highest grade of Indian pepper. The first thing you always notice with Tellichery peppercorns is their huge size which is their defining feature. The Tellichery peppercorns were noticeably darker than the Malabar ones although still lighter in color and less dense than Kampot pepper. Yet they are very pungent. The smell was more intense than the smell of Malabar peppercorns. The spice sensation was very different from light and Malabar peppercorns, similar to the one you notice in Kampot pepper.

Tellichery Pepper
Diameter5 millimeters
Density550
ColorMedium to dark brown
SmellTellichery pepper smells more pungent than Malabar pepper. The pine and aromatic warm flavor compounds are very pronounced.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Pungent
Pine
Sweet Aromatic
TasteThe heat sensation is similar to that in Kampot pepper. The heat spreads slowly across the mouth from the front to the back without overwhelming the palate. Yet the pepper is still very spicy. The spice stays in the back of the throat for a long time. Tellichery pepper tastes woodier, warmer, and less earthy than Malabar pepper. The aftertaste is spicy, woody, and warm.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Warm
Woody
Earthy

What makes Tellichery pepper special is its flavor complexity. The heat of the peppers is not burning the tongue. Instead, it’s a very nice balance of warm, woody, and earthy undertones. Yet it is missing the minty and floral notes of Kampot pepper. But overall, this is a pepper of the highest quality. It’s hard to go wrong with Tellichery pepper. It’s a type of pepper that every pepper lover should try at least try once.

Banasura pepper from Kerala

The Banasura dam is the largest natural dam in India. It is located in the highlands of Northern Kerala and around the dam a very special type of pepper from India is grown: Banasura pepper. The soil around the Banasura dam is very fertile and the climatic conditions are perfect for growing pepper. The pepper plants in Banusara grow about 3 times as high as regular pepper plants. The thing that makes Banasura pepper special is not its spiciness. The pepper is harvested just shortly before it has fully ripened ensuring a harvest of large and very aromatic peppercorns.

Banasura Pepper
Diameter5 millimeters
Density525 grams per liter
Colormedium to dark brown
SmellIncredibly warm and aromatic. From the smell alone, not much spice in the form of heat is expected. The pepper smells woody and the pine notes are less pronounced than in Malabar or Tellichery pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Sweet Aromatic
Warm
Woody
Pine
Little spiciness and pungency
TasteThe heat spreads slowly across the mouth from the front to the back. It is not a burning heat. Instead, the heat level is very even and enjoyable. The taste is sweet, woody, and even a bit fruity. The taste is very well rounded and lasts in the mouth for a long time. Very warming and comforting.

Observed flavor attributes:
Warm
Spicy
Woody
Fruity
Sweet

Banasura pepper is probably the best pepper available for German food. It has a rather mild spice level that is very pleasant because it has been ripened for a longer time than Malabar pepper. Yet the warm and Christmas-like aroma is unmatched. It has a subtle fruitiness to it and makes me feel very cozy. It is warming me in the same way as cinnamon or nutmeg would. It’s indeed a very special kind of pepper. Banasura pepper would be perfect for baking gingerbread or other Christmas cookies. If you have grown up eating traditional German food then you will love this pepper. An extraordinary product.

What a great discovery to end today’s post! In the next part of this series, we will travel from India to Indonesia and take a look at the rich history of this country and the types of pepper grown on these magnificent islands that are well worth a visit.

Resources:

Black Pepper Piper nigrum by P. N. Ravindran

Processing and quality of black pepper – a review

Role of the Fermentation Process in Off-odorant Formation in White Pepper:  On-site Trial in Thailand

A review on conventional and biotechnological approaches in white pepper production

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