Referred as “king of spice”, black pepper is incredibly popular among spices since ancient times. Peppercorn is native to the tropical evergreen rain forest of South Indian Kerala state, from where it spread to rest of the world through Indian and Arab traders. Pepper fruit, also known as the peppercorn, is actually a berry obtained from pepper plant.
Botanically, peppercorn belongs to the family of Piperaceae, in the genus of piper and known scientifically as Piper nigrum. It is a perennial vine and climber that requires supporting trellies (tree or pole) to grow resembling as growth characteristics as that of beetle leaf plant. The pepper plant begins producing small round berries after about three to four years of plantation. Technically, the pepper berry is a friuit (drupe), measuring about 5-6 mm in diameter, enclosing a single large seed at its center.
|Green, immature peppercorns|
Commercial peppercorns available in the markets may vary in colors. However, all kinds of peppercorns are nothing but the same pepper fruit which picked up from the plant at different stages of maturity and subjected to different methods of processing. In general, peppercorns harvested while half-mature and just about to turn red. They are then left to dry under the sunlight until they dry, shrivel and turn black (black peppercorns). Alternatively, green peppercorns picked while the berries still unripe and green. The white peppercorn got its name when a completely ripe berry soaked in the brine in order to remove its dark, outer skin, exposing inner white-color pepper seed.
Black peppers have a strong pungent flavor that comes from volatile-oils, such as piperine. In case of milled-peppers, these volatile oils may disappear because of evaporation.
Cubeb or tailed pepper berries are dried, unripe fruits of the Piper cubeba vine that grows mainly in the Indonesian rain forest. They appear similar to black peppercorns but have a characteristic stalk which is often interpreted as a "tail." Cubeb berries have a distinctive flavor because of monoterpene essential oil, cubebene.
Peppercorns contain an impressive list of plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. Black peppers have been in use since centuries for their anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-flatulent properties.
Peppercorns composed of health benefiting essential oils such as piperine, an amine alkaloid, which gives strong spicy pungent character. They also carry numerous monoterpenes hydrocarbons such as sabinene, pinene, terpenene, limonene, mercene, etc., which altogether gives aromatic property to the pepper.
The above-mentioned active principles in the peppercorns may increase gut motility as well as the digestion power through augmenting gastro-intestinal enzyme secretions. It has also been found that piperine can increase absorption of selenium, B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene, as well as other nutrients from the food.
Black peppercorns contain a good amount of minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for cellular respiration and blood cell production.
They are also an excellent source of many vital B-complex groups of vitamins such as Pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin.
Peppercorns are a good source of many anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamin-C and vitamin-A. They are also rich in flavonoid polyphenolic anti-oxidants like carotenes, cryptoxanthin, zea-xanthin and lycopene. These compounds help the body remove harmful free radicals and help protect from cancers and diseases.
Black Peppercorns can be available year around in the markets. In the store, buy whole peppercorns instead of pepper powder since, oftentimes, it may contain adulterated spices. The peppercorns should be wholesome, heavy, round and compact.
Peppercorns can be stored at room temperature for many years and can be milled using hand mill as and when required. It can be kept inside the refrigerator for up to a month or so. Powdered pepper should be stored inside the refrigerator in airtight containers.
Peppers have been used therapeutically in dentistry as an antiseptic remedy for tooth-decay and gum swellings.
Peppercorns are also being employed in traditional medicines in treating flatulence and indigestion, however, there is little or no data to support these claims in modern medicine.
Black pepper is one of the most versatile spices used in several kinds of savoury cooking. In order to keep their fragrance and flavor intact, they generally milled just before preparing dishes and added at the last minutes in the recipes (since prolonged cooking results in evaporation of essential oils).
Here are some preparation tips:
|Spaghetti Bolognese. Minced meat with dash
of ground black peppers in a delicious pasta recipe!
Photo courtesy: Lachlan
Black peppercorns along with other spices and seasonings used to marinate chicken, fish, and meat.
The spice used liberally in Indian vegetarian and chicken curries and in the Middle-East, in meat and rice dishes.
They can be employed in the preparation of soups, barbecue sauces, pickling and as a main ingredient in variety of curry powders (Indian garam masala powder).
Although preferred in savoury foods, this spice can also feature, albeit, in tiny quantities in sweet preparations like fruitcakes, breads, pies to add a peppery-spice note.
In India and Pakistan, black peppercorn powder mixed with salt, and the mixture is a common item found on the serving table in restaurants. The mixture sprinkled over vegetable/fruit salads, chats, lemonades, in soups, etc. Lassi (churned yogurt) is often flavored with this spice-salt mixture in the Punjab province.
Cubeb peppers mainly feature in Indonesian curries.
Consumption of dishes prepared with excessive amounts of black pepper can cause gastrointestinal irritation, and bleeding from the ulcer sites. Therefore, recipes prepared with pepper should be avoided in individuals with acid-peptic disease, stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis conditions. (Medical disclaimer).
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