Peppercorns on the vine
Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 6: Review of rare and exotic pepper varieties

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My pepper series is about to come to an end. Today, I want to introduce you to even more types of pepper available for purchase that I haven’t covered previously. I will give you my taste impressions of African, Vietnamese, as well as Indian pepper cultivars.

Some of these pepper varieties are part of the Piper nigrum family while others are wild forest cultivars that are very rarely featured in German cuisine. As I have discussed the history and production of pepper in my previous posts already, I don’t want to turn this into a lengthy post. The pepper series has been the longest series of posts I have ever produced for this blog and I’m sure my readers appreciate it if I also cover different topics related to food, history, or German culture in the future.

Pepper from Vietnam

If you’ve read my first post about pepper from Vietnam and Cambodia, you might remember that I discouraged you to buy Vietnamese pepper. It often exceeds the allowed pesticide residue levels and overall the quality is mostly subpar. However, that doesn’t mean that all pepper from Vietnam is bad! There are certainly great pepper farmers in this country that produce pepper of very fine quality.

So, today I will cover two pepper specialties from Vietnam: Red pepper from Phú Quốc as well as Verbena pepper which is sometimes also called Vietnamese lemon pepper. The red pepper from Phú Quốc is just regular pepper that has been allowed to fully ripen on the vine before it was harvested. Verbena pepper, on the other hand, is wild forest produce that tastes citrusy and doesn’t have much in common with regular peppercorns.

While I have to say that Verbena pepper tastes quite alright to me (I much prefer Andaliman pepper from Indonesia), the red peppercorns from Phú Quốc were very aromatic. I must admit that they aren’t as breathtakingly delicious as Kampot peppercorns but there is also no huge difference in taste. I can recommend red peppercorns from Vietnam if you buy them at a retailer that can source good quality pepper. Just avoid the mass-produced stuff in the big bags at your local grocery store and you should be fine. If in doubt of the quality, it is always a good idea to measure the bulk density of the peppercorns.

Taste test: Red Phú Quốc peppercorns

Phu Quoc red peppercorns
Diameter of the peppercorns5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns550 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsBrown-reddish to black-reddish
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell is very aromatic and refreshing. I love the minty and eucalyptus notes. A very herbal and warming smell. Not as pungent as Kampot pepper but very pleasing.

Observed flavor attributes:
Minty
Eucalyptus
Herbal
Pine
Warm
Earthy/ Musty
Woody
Taste of the peppercornsA very refreshing taste with strong minty/ eucalyptus notes. The pepper also has some earthiness to it. Because it has been harvested very late, the spice level is mild which allows me to appreciate more subtle flavors. The overall flavor is not radically different from Kampot pepper but Phú Quốc pepper is milder and a little less complex in taste.

Observed flavor attributes:
Minty
Eucalyptus
Herbal
Woody
Earthy
Floral
Mild spiciness

Taste test: Verbena pepper

Verbena pepper from Vietnam
Diameter of the peppercorns5-7 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns390 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsBlack with a light blue hue
Smell of the peppercornsA very intriguing smell. The earthy notes are very strong and overpower the more subtle citrus and minty/ eucalyptus notes. It’s a very interesting combination of flavors. Earthy with a refreshing citrusy undertone.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Citrusy
Minty/ Eucalyptus
Pine
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper tastes citrusy, however, not citrusy sweet. The peppercorns are quite bitter but in a pleasant way combined with earthy/ tobacco-like notes. Very different from Sichuan or Andaliman pepper which have a lemony-sweet flavor.

Observed flavor attributes:
Citrusy
Tobacco
Woody
Earthy
Floral
Bitter

Pepper from Africa

Africa isn’t a large-scale pepper producer. The black continent is most famous for grains of paradise and grains of Selim. These were popular pepper substitutes during Medieval times when pepper from India was unaffordable for the majority of the European population. I have reviewed and introduced both these pepper substitutes in the last part of my pepper series.

Today, I’m going to review two varieties of regular black pepper grown in Africa: Penja pepper from Cameroon and Killindi pepper from Tanzania.

I was quite impressed by the Penja pepper while the Killindi pepper was a big letdown. So if you decide to purchase pepper from Africa, I would strongly recommend you go with Penja pepper which has a nice citrusy-fragrance to it.

With spices from Tanzania in general, I recommend you to be very careful when purchasing them. The last time my mother brought back spices she had purchased in Sansibar, they were either fake (the saffron – don’t ever purchase that if you can’t identify it) or of mediocre to low quality (especially the cinnamon). Nevertheless, if you have a chance to visit Tanzania – do it. Go on a safari and watch all the beautiful animals. It’s a breathtaking and wonderful experience! Just be aware to not overpay for the spices they sell on the island of Sansibar.

Taste test: Penja pepper

Penja pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns3 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns540 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsMedium-dark to dark-brown, greyish
Smell of the peppercornsA very well balanced smell that is not too pungent. It’s a harmonious combination of pine and earthy notes. Also slightly citrusy. Very pleasant.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pine-like
Earthy/ musty
Fruity
Woody
Citrusy
Taste of the peppercornsThe spice level is intense and the taste is delicious. The pepper has a very fragrant citrusy note that is accompanied by woodiness. The pepper also has a very pleasant fruity and a few earthy notes. Overall, a solid choice. Very aromatic.

Observed flavor attributes:
Woody
Citrusy
Fruity
Spicy
Earthy

Taste test: Killindi pepper

Killindi pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns3 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns415 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsmedium to dark brown
Smell of the peppercornsKillindi pepper smells much earthier than Penja pepper. A very slight citrusy note. But overall, quite similar to Penja pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy/ musty
Slight pine aroma
Fruity
Citrusy
Taste of the peppercornsKillindi pepper has a fair spice level and tastes much earthier/ tobacco-like than the Penja pepper. A very woody taste with a few bitter notes. I like this pepper much less than Penja pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Woody
Spicy
Tobacco-like
Bitter

Pepper from India

I have five more pepper varieties from India to review: red Pondicherry pepper, fermented Pondicherry pepper, green Malabar pepper, chocolate pepper, and Assam pepper.

Pondicherry peppercorns are simply red peppercorns that have been harvested in their fully ripe state. For the fermented variety, the red peppercorns get salted and left to ferment in the sun for a few weeks. Both varieties of Pondicherry pepper taste spectacularly delicious and are highly recommended by me.

Taste test: Red Pondicherry pepper

Pondicherry pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns590 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsBurgundy red, slight orange/ brownish tone
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell is very pungent and spicy but at the same time pleasant and warm. The pepper smells very herbal, pine-like, and refreshing with a few fruity notes. Not very earthy or muddy at all.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pungent
Spicy
Warm
Pine-like
Herbal
Eucalyptus
Fruity
Taste of the peppercornsThis pepper is very aromatic. The flavor is warm, sweet, and fruity with a few herbal notes. The spice level is rather mild but the pepper has an almost perfect balance of flavor. It doesn’t have the earthiness/ mustiness of black pepper and is milder in taste even though it smells very pungent.

Observed flavor attributes:
Warm
Sweet
Herbal
Fruity
Spicy

Taste Test: Fermented Pondicherry pepper

Fermented pondicherry
Diameter of the peppercorns4-5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns725 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsblack
Smell of the peppercornsThe pepper smells fishy but not in an unpleasant way. It’s a very aromatic smell of the ocean like freshly caught fish. Other than that, the pepper smells a little sweet, very different from unfermented pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fishy
Ocean-like
Warm
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper tastes not very spicy but rather mild. The first thing you notice is the saltiness from the salt used to preserve the pepper. The pepper tastes very fruity with a few herbal/ floral notes. Overall, it’s a mild but very pleasant aroma sensation. The fermentation has not led to the formation of funky off-flavors but rather mellowed out the flavor. However, the fruity taste of the pepper is very pronounced and delicious.

Observed flavor attributes:
Salty
Sweet
Fruity
Floral
Herbal
Spicy
Earthy

Taste test: Green Malabar pepper

Green peppercorns are peppercorns that have been harvested before they have fully matured. They can either be eaten fresh, frozen, preserved in brine, or dried. In this taste test, I review dried green peppercorns from the Malabar coast of India. The taste is obviously much milder than black peppercorns. But sometimes that might be all you want, for example when baking bread or with delicate fish or seafood.

Green malabar pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns3-4 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns315 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornslight olive-green, a little greyish
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell is very pine-like and herbal. Super refreshing and light. Overall, a very pleasing and pungent smell with a very light sweetness. A bit of earthiness is also recognizable.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pine-like
Herbal
Earthy
Woody
Sweet
Taste of the peppercornsA very light taste that is mild compared to black pepper. The spice level is not too intense yet the pepper has nice herbal and citrusy notes that make it very refreshing. There’s a bit of woodiness to the taste but not much. Overall, a very good choice if you want to add some light and tangy notes to delicate foods.

Observed flavor attributes:
Citrusy
Grassy
Spicy
Woody

Taste test: Chocolate pepper

It might sound very obscure at first, but chocolate pepper really shares some flavor similarities with chocolate. This pepper is a wild cultivar found in India and I think it is an excellent seasoning for stews and sweet dishes.

chocolate pepper
Length of the pepper1-2.5 centimeters
Density of the pepper525 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornslight brown to black-greyish
Smell of the peppercornsA very delicious smell of chocolate with earthy undertones. This pepper reminds me so much of cocoa with earthy/ dirt notes. Very aromatic and appetizing smell.

Observed flavor attributes:
Chocolate
Sweet and Aromatic
Earthy
Taste of the peppercornsA very complex chocolate/ cocoa flavor with sweet and earthy undertones. The spice level is mild, however, the pepper is citrusy in its aftertaste and numbs the tongue. Over time, the chocolate aroma fades and the pepper tastes fruity and lemony An outstanding flavor experience. Incredibly delicious.

Observed flavor attributes:
Chocolate
Sweet
Fruity
Earthy
Numbing
Lemon
Citrusy
Extremely subtle spiciness

Taste test: Assam pepper

Like chocolate pepper, Assam pepper is also wild forest produce. Assam pepper tastes a little fruity but also very earthy. I am not too impressed by it but I guess it’s up to personal preference if one enjoys this pepper cultivar.

Assam pepper
Diameter of the peppercorns5-10 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns500 grams per Liter
Color of the peppercornsbrown, black-greyish
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell is very earthy and reminds me of the soil, even a bit muddy. There are woody and citrusy undertones to the smell. Assam pepper doesn’t smell very tempting or appetizing to me.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Soil
Muddy
Woody
Citrusy
Taste of the peppercornsAt first, the taste is very fruity and even a bit sweet with a few citrusy notes. However, the aftertaste is bitter and earthy, even a bit muddy. You really have to appreciate earthy flavors to like this pepper because it really tastes like the soil and a bit smokey with a unique fruitiness to it. The numbing effect of the pepper is very subtle. The spice level is minimal and barely noticeable.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fruity
Sweet
Earthy
Bitter
Citrusy
Slightly numbing and spicy
Smokey

Wrapping-up the pepper series

You’ve made it to the end of my pepper series. I hope you learned a thing or two while reading along and gained a deeper understanding of pepper. It’s quite fascinating how many stories and plant cultivars are connected to this spice that we grind on our food every day.

I have a deep appreciation for these small berries and never take them for granted. Way too often pepper is an afterthought for us nowadays when seasoning foods. But pepper doesn’t have to be the tasteless mass-produced powder from the supermarket. High-quality peppercorns can take a dish from tasting ok to astonishingly delicious – no other spices needed.

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