Jan 25, 2014

Fresh Pepper Flourish

WAYANAD, INDIA    As I walked through the Kuppamudi coffee and spice plantation one late afternoon this January, I listened to the chattering of monkeys, the call of birds, and the distant sounds of people working on nearby estates - trees being cut, a car crawling up a dirt road, a dog barking. There was both a stillness and an activity in the air. The dimness of manmade sound and the clarity of rich natural sounds was soothing; I felt lulled by these sounds, having just travelled from the harrowing city streets of Mysore and Delhi. As I walked down the path I noticed pepper plants, i.e. Piper nigrum, growing up the long, straight poles of betel nut trees.

Studying the green peppercorns I realized how little I knew about this humble spice. I touched it carefully, wondering how impossible it would be to trace the path of one single peppercorn from origin to table. "You have a long journey ahead," I told the unripe peppercorn.

And it has an incredible journey behind it as well, a history that inspired the "Age of Discovery," when, circa late 15th century, ships set sail from Europe in search of valuables such as silk and spices. From pepper's perspective, she's done rather well, attracting fleets of ships to her native shores of Kerala, where she once grew wild through the Western Ghats. What a gal!

Alas, pepper knows something we don't know. It contains in its green-white-black* varieties a mysterious but addictive flavor; a flavor that can be hot and fiery or mildly warm and floral. And that's just the flavor! The aroma of pepper can vary even more, depending on how it's processed, where it's grown, and how long it has sat around (either on ships or in your cupboard.) Coffee is a good comparison - nobody likes stale coffeebeans! The Romans were huge seekers of pepper, using the spice, some historians believed, not just to flavor food, but to preserve it. The first steak au poivre may've been a piece of old meat covered in ground pepper to disguise its rancid taste. Yum!

I am so happy to give you all a glimpse of the pepper world from its botanical origin. The plantation in Wayanad was such a beautiful, peaceful place to consider this spice. And it seems appropriate that my first glimpse of pepper was the raw, unripe fruit still on the stem—in its region of botanical origin, no less! And though most is harvested unripe to be sundried and sent abroad, there are many other types of pepper we know and love that originate from this single stem and species. Check out my nifty diagram:

And, dear friends, though I have a personal love for the "fancy" grade peppercorns called Tellicherry, I didn't make it to the city itself. Our time was tight and the roads were winding and honestly terrifying. But I did learn that the Tellicherry peppercorns (as discussed in this post) are a special, subset grade of peppercorn from the Malabar coast. Tellicherry peppercorns are harvested when they're fully ripe, and then sorted for their large size through special sieves. These larger, ripened fruits tend to impart a fuller, more citrusy and complex flavor than the smaller Malabar peppercorns.

Back in Bangkok now I've enjoyed playing with the green peppercorns themselves which frequent the supermarket shelves. One way of keeping the fresh, fruity flavor alive for longer than a day (they degrade quickly) is by brining, or pickling them. For a good brining recipe, go to MyDiverseKitchen. In Thai cuisine, the unripe drupes are used as a last minute flourish to soups and curries, especially pork stir fries, giving it that distinctive citrusy, fresh Thai flavor. Yum yum พริกไทยอ่อน

And check out my new and very own "Prik Thai" plant from the farmer's market! Only $3!

*Note! Pink pepper is not included here because it comes from a different plant altogether, called Schinus molle, a member of the sumac family.


  1. diagram is really helpful!!

  2. Vine to Grind! What a wonderfully spicy phrase. KNowing yo are in the land of so many intermingled languages, it makes me appreciate even more the way you mingle in our blog the languages of word, photo, line, and yes, Spice! Carry on with the adventure! BC

  3. What's in the cup your holding? Is it a latte? hummm...