As a personal chef in Atlanta, I use an array of spices to create fantastic dishes for my clients. However, salt and pepper are must-have ingredients in any kitchen. In a previous post I shared what I know about salt. Now, it’s time for pepper.
Pepper (also known by its botanical name, piperaceae, or piper nigrum for black pepper) derives from peppercorns that grow in vines. Pepper vines reach maturity after three years. Then, they can be harvested every year thereafter. The plant can last up to twenty years, depending on the level of care.
Most people find black pepper as either fine or coarse powder or as berries that come in glass jars or ready to use grinders. However, pepper is available in a multitude of colors, varieties and names. The complex flavors that can be obtained from these gems are amazing.
What's Up with White Peppercorn?
Let’s start on one end of the peppercorn berries spectrum: the white peppercorn. White peppercorns are black peppercorns with the skin removed. There is a higher demand in Europe than there is in the United States for white pepper which makes it more expensive than black pepper.
There are several varieties of white peppercorn. There is the Muntok, named after one of Indonesia’s main ports.
There’s Sarawak, Malaysia’s fanciest white peppercorn. Sarawak is popular because its creamy white surface is uniform. However, Sarawak is more expensive than Muntok and is spicy hot.
Next is Penja, first cultivated in 1950 from Penja Valley, Cameroon. Penja is a rare find outside France, since there is high demand there. Penja is also the hottest and most expensive white peppercorn available.
Black Pepper, Bold Possibilities
On the opposite end of the spectrum is black peppercorn. Black peppercorn is obtained when the mature berry is cut while it is still green, just before it turns yellow and the ripening process turns it red. Aging by natural air when it’s dry turns the peppercorn black. An alternative process is to cut the berries and then put them through a quick boil. Then, they are left to ferment by natural air or sun drying. This process makes the peppercorn look wrinkled when dried.
There are many black peppercorn varieties and grades since it is most popular and in high demand. They are typically named after their place of origin.
Malabar, from the Malabar Coast in southwest India, is the most popular and affordable black pepper.
Tellicherry peppercorns are also from Malabar as well but are larger and higher quality. They are harvested when the berries are yellow-orange and, in some cases, almost red. Harvesting them so close to the ripened stage creates an aromatic spice with floral-fruity flavor and shaded complexions from dark browns to black.
Sarawak Black is a medium sized peppercorn from Malaysia. Its growers experiment with different techniques to quickly harvest and force air dry the berries. The results are often described as chocolaty, fruity and licorice tasting pepper.
Lampong peppercorns from Sumatra, Indonesia are a smaller version of the Sarawak peppercorn. Most popular in United Kingdom, Lampong peppercorn is described as smoky, earthy and spicy.
Vietnamese peppercorns are larger than Lampong peppercorns with a citrus aroma.
Kampot peppercorns are grown at the foot of Cambodia’s southern coast mountains. This is done to take advantage of the high quartz in the soil. Kampot peppercorn creates pepper that is mildly smoky with crisp notes of sweet guava and eucalyptus. It’s in high demand in Japan and France but rarely found in the United States.
Peppercorn from Ponape, Micronesia, in the western Pacific Ocean, is organically grown and highly expensive because of government policies in this archipelago. The plant is a high maintenance crop because it likes lots of water, humidity and sunlight. The plant needs to be pruned and fertilized for about two to three years before any harvesting. It takes five years or so for a full crop. Although the matured berries are cut while they are still green, they are sweet. The berries are dunked in a hot waterbath and then sun dried until they reach their dark color.
Penja black peppercorn is from Cameroon, Central Africa. These small to medium sized berries are spicy and expensive. Penja black peppercorn is considered exotic and is very popular in France because of its rich, earthy, pungent fragrance that hints of cumin.
Madagascar peppercorns are greyish brown and mildly hot with a hickory, oak charred smokiness. Pepper from Madagascar is preferred by French chefs (not surprising since this county, located off the Southeast coast of Africa, was once a colony of France).
Unleash the Power of Pepper
Most recipes recommend using freshly ground pepper and, depending on what you’re making, you can use any of these peppercorn varieties in your dishes. You can grind the peppercorns or crush them with a mortar and pestle.
Using fresh pepper releases earthy aromatics, fruity scents and a slight kick of heat into grilled foods, brines and pickled vegetables.
Don’t be afraid to unleash the power of pepper in your dishes. Trying out different kinds of pepper is a great way to discover how explosive these berries can be.