The Curious Story Of White and Black Pepper (Piper Nigrum)

The dried fruits and white seeds of black pepper, Piper nigrum

I’ve been a fan of black pepper since early childhood when my mom would sprinkle my morning eggs with the aromatic spice. Later I grew to love the coarser varieties. Ground at the table, the dried fruits tumbled onto my salad leaves, invigorating my meals with their gritty flavor. White pepper came later. A key ingredient in many Swedish dishes, it enlivened all of our family smorgasbords.

But, I knew very little about white and black pepper, where it came from and how it was processed, until I attended a lecture on spices last week at the United States Botanic Garden.

Herbs are not spices

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a spice as

“An aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken or ground form except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onion, garlic and celery.”

This is an important distinction. Note the part that says ‘Except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods’. That includes such flavorings as oregano, rosemary, marjoram, garlic powder and thyme, which many of us regard as spices, but are in fact dried herbs.

Dried oregano is an herb, not a spice

What makes spices different is that their key function is seasoning, not nutrition. Spices are not ground from the leaves of a plant, but from its fruit, flower, seeds or bark. Best to think of spice as a culinary term rather than a botanical category, our lecturer said.

According to him, the main spices are cinnamon, nutmeg/mace (made from the same plant), cloves, allspice and pepper. Among them, black pepper, or Piper nigrum, is considered the King of Spices.

The twisted story

Piper nigrum is a tropical vine with tiny fruits that can reach heights of 30 feet or more. The long-lived plants (some can persist for a century) are native to Kerala in Southwestern India. This region is known for its abundant rainfall (monsoons) and intense sun, the essential ingredients black pepper needs to flower, fruit and flourish.

The immature green fruits of black pepper, Piper nigrum

In the U.S., we import all of our pepper from overseas. There is no domestic production. While Kerala remains the main source of premier grade pepper, the spice is now cultivated in other tropical parts of the world, including Vietnam which is today the world’s largest producer.

Black pepper vines growing on a plantation in southern Vietnam

Black pepper depends on a lot of rain splatter to encourage its many miniature blooms. A single, 3-inch inflorescence can produce up to 100 flowers. The flowers are followed by single-seeded berries that take approximately 6 to 7 months to mature.

The chemical piperine, a part of the plant’s resistance against diseases and fungi, is responsible for black pepper’s spicy heat. It is derived both from the outer fruit and the seed. Black pepper contains between 4.6 and 9.7% piperine by mass, and white pepper has slightly more.

The difference between black and white pepper

Black and white pepper both come from the same plant but they are harvested at different times and processed in different ways. And there are many variants of peppercorns, whose color, flavor and strength depend on location, soil and climate.

Black pepper is made from the still-green, unripe berries of the plant, which are dried and fermented in the sun. The skin and pulp shrivel up and turn black in the process. Once dry, the spice is called black peppercorn.

Green, unripe berries of Piper nigrum for sale in a market

Dried black peppercorns

Harvested about a month later, white pepper is made from the seeds of the plant’s ripe red berries. The fruits are soaked in water for about a week during which the skin and pulp decomposes. Once exposed, the naked seeds are then dried.

Ripe, red berries of Piper nigrum on the vine

The dried white seeds that compose white pepper

Since white pepper has stayed on the vine longer, it has a more powerful aroma and a distinctive herbal smell that some describe as grassy.

My visit to NYC’s Kalustyan’s

In an effort to better understand the nuances, I dragged my daughter to Kalustyan’s in New York City this weekend. Established in 1944, Kalustyan’s is, according to Zagat’s, ‘Simply the best place in Manhattan for Middle Eastern and Indian herbs and spices.’ The tiny store didn’t disappoint. Three floors of metal shelves stacked floor to ceiling with transparent envelopes contained every ground spice, flower and herb imaginable.

My research partner inside Kalustyan’s

My daughter and I found the pepper section located down a short flight of stairs off the main level in a cloud of head-clearing aromas.

It was tempting to explore all of the many kinds, which included green, pink and white varieties, but since our focus was Piper nigrum, I asked an Indian man behind a counter to elaborate. He affirmed that the differences between black and white pepper were due to their time of harvest and method of processing. And much depended on the climate, particular weather patterns, and soil.

‘The earlier the harvest, the fruitier they will be and the later, the more fiery and robust a flavor’, he said.

Not unlike fine wine.

We grabbed a few samples and headed back to the hotel for a smell and taste test.

Clockwise from top left: X-Fine Ground Black Peppercorns, Vietnamese (Saigon) Black Peppercorn, Butcher Ground Black Peppercorns and Muntok White Peppercorn from Indonesia

The surprising complexity of black pepper

No sooner had the spices been released from their envelopes and the room was filled with a blend of tantalizing smells. True to what the US Botanic Garden lecturer had told us, the white pepper had a distinctive grassy aroma, more organic than any spice I had previously encountered. The butcher-ground black pepper had a more expected hot, pungent smell while the Vietnamese black peppercorns gave off a deep, smoky aroma not unlike coffee. Finally the X-fine ground pepper had a strong pungent flavor, similar to the white pepper, but with a hint of fresh leaves.

Aside from a fun afternoon, my major take-away from the sampling was that pepper is best purchased from a specialty store such as Kalustyan’s (you can order online). And, if you’re looking for authenticity, it pays to check out some of the Indian, Indonesian and Vietnamese varieties. We’ll be trying the butcher-ground black pepper on our roast chicken this evening.

 

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