Pepper is arguably the world’s most important spice, popular all across the globe and used in various cuisines for hundreds of years. The term ‘pepper’ is used to describe different types and varieties of spices that come in a range of colours with all different qualities. However it is most often used when referencing piper nigrum, or black pepper, which is the most-used spice on earth.
Peppers are distinctly known for their pungent, slightly spicy, earthy, and woody flavour, though there are myriad varieties available each with their own differences. Regardless of the type, the taste of pepper pairs well with almost every ingredient imaginable, though they are most often used alongside savoury foods to add a boldness of flavour.
Today, pepper accounts for about 1/5th of the world’s spice trade. Let’s examine the different types of pepper a little more deeply to learn more about this beloved spice that has enriched our food for millenia.
Black peppercorns begin as green berries growing on the vine, just like grapes. When ripe, they turn dark red and shrivel by the sun. This is when they turn into the recognisable black peppercorns we use in cooking. After being dried, black peppercorns are sifted through mesh screens and sorted into different sizes. Bigger peppercorns are considered to have the best and strongest flavour.
Black pepper is best used when it has been coarsely ground from fresh peppercorns. It has a very pungent taste and smell which pairs well with most foods. Black pepper is used in small amounts in cooking or as a garnish on foods. It can be sprinkled on salads or over eggs, added to omelettes, soups and stocks, used as a marinade on meat before cooking, or as a seasoning on baked goods. Black pepper can be added to savoury dips and salsas or used to add a spiciness to pastries and biscuits. In some parts of the world, black pepper is even used in carbonated beverages and soft drinks to elevate their flavour.
History of black pepper
The earliest records of black pepper date back more than 3,000 years ago, when the Vedas, written in Sanskrit in ancient India, described the therapeutic benefits of black pepper and how to best administer and use it as a medicine. The spice was native to Southern India but exported all across the globe along with the spice trade, especially to Egypt where it was widely used even before the time of Ramses the Great.
In the 5th century, black pepper was considered so valuable that it could be used to pay taxes and levies instead of local currency. Even dowries and rent were sometimes paid using pepper. In 408AD, when Rome was besieged by the Visigoths, the city would only be released with a ransom of 1,300 kilos of peppercorns. Pepper was universally loved all across the ancient world, from India to northern Europe, traded as a valuable spice that lifted the cuisines of countries everywhere.
Today, almost all tropical countries around the globe grow black pepper.
Different types of black pepper
There are different types of black pepper depending on the size of the peppercorns. The top 10% are known as Tellicherry peppercorns. The best of these are called ‘Tellicherry Extra Bold’ or ‘Tellicherry Special Bold’ peppercorns. These are the best of the best, the cream of the crop when it comes to black peppercorns – the strongest and most pungent. You can compare Tellicherry black pepper to Wagyu beef, the highest standard in black pepper that exists today.
Other types of peppercorns are named after the regions in which they have been cultivated. These include Malabar black pepper which comes from the Malabar Coast in Kerala, India. Lampong pepper is grown in Indonesia and has an aromatic flavour that’s not as strong as Tellicherry but still high quality. Sarawak pepper comes from Malaysia and is a more mild type of black pepper, best used alongside other spices. Brazilian pepper is perhaps lowest in quality and serves commercial companies that are after cheap black pepper in large amounts.
Green pepper is made from the young peppercorns of black pepper, picked from the vine while still green and before ripening into black pepper. After they have been picked, green peppercorns will continue to ripen. To halt the ripening process, green pepper producers dehydrate the green peppercorns. Another traditional method of preventing green peppercorns from ripening into black pepper is to pickle them into a brine, however that is less common.
What does green pepper taste like?
Green pepper has a less intense flavour than black pepper. You can compare it to green tomatoes versus red tomatoes. The green tomatoes will be a lot less flavoursome, but still fresh and tasty in its own way. Some people consider green pepper to be zestier and more lively than black peppercorns, adding a slightly fruity flavour to dishes.
How to use green pepper?
Green pepper can be used in much the same way as black pepper, however it will give a much brighter, milder taste to dishes. You can substitute green peppercorns for black pepper in sauces like steak au poivre, giving a different overall flavour. You can also combine green pepper with black pepper in recipes to add a twist to the usual tastes. Being much more mellow than black pepper, green pepper is great when paired with seafood and chicken, as well as cream-based sauces and vinaigrettes.
Just like green pepper, white pepper comes from young black peppercorns that haven’t dried in the sun. This is why white peppercorns don’t have the characteristic wrinkles seen on black peppercorns (a result of drying). White peppercorns are picked when ripe and placed under running water or left to soak. This dissolves the skin of the peppers, leaving behind a white-grey colour that gives white peppercorns their name. Because they have shed their skin, white peppercorns are a little smaller than black and green peppercorns.
What does white pepper taste like?
White pepper tastes quite different to black pepper. Their flavour lacks the complexity and spiciness of black pepper, and instead is a little more aromatic, floral, and delicate in taste. White pepper is still a little pungent, but much more fruity in taste than black pepper. White pepper is also known to have a slight taste of fermentation, thanks to being processed in water.
How do you use white pepper?
White pepper is commonly used in Asian and European cuisines. In China its floral flavour can be tasted in many popular soups, like hot and sour soup, or stir-fries like cashew chicken ding. In Europe, white pepper is often used instead of black pepper. Sometimes white pepper is favoured for its lack of colour, able to be used in light-coloured dishes without adding the characteristic black spots that black pepper is known for.
Different types of white pepper
Just like black pepper, there are different types of white pepper that have different qualities and tastes. The different types of white pepper will depend on where it has been grown and the way it has been processed. Sarawak white pepper comes from Malaysia and is processed by leaving the peppercorns under running water until the outer skin is dissolved. The result is a bright tasting white peppercorn that has a nice kick and a strong flavour. The other main type of white pepper, Muntok white pepper, has a much milder taste than Sarawak white pepper. Muntok white pepper comes from Indonesia and is processed by leaving the peppercorns soaking in still water. The end result is a more grey coloured peppercorn that has a milder taste but is much cheaper than Sarawak white pepper.
Penja white pepper is the most rare type of white pepper. It is very expensive and grows only in Cameroon, where it has been granted protected geographical indication to prevent counterfeiters. The flavour of Penja white pepper is more robust, spicy, and intensely aromatic than other white peppers.
Long pepper, also known as piper longum, comes from the same family as black, green, and white peppercorns. It is the fruit of the flowering vine, consisting of many minuscule fruits embedded into the surface of a flower spike. Its unusual appearance makes it one of the most attractive spices. Long pepper has a similar taste to black pepper but is much hotter, sweeter, and more grounding in taste.
Historically, long pepper was often interlinked with black pepper, with the term ‘pepper’ being used interchangeably to refer to both spices. While once vastly popular across the globe, the use of long pepper has retreated into obscurity. It is rarely used in modern cooking and often reserved for use in Indian, Pakistani, or Nepalese foods. Long pepper is also found in some North African spice mixes as well as Indonesian or Malaysian dishes. It is also an important and commonly used medicinal herb in Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine.
How to use long pepper in cooking
Long pepper can be used whole, fresh or dried, or as a powder. Whole, dried long pepper can be added to marinades, stews, and roasts. It is popular in pickles and can be added to soups and stocks as you would a bay leaf. Whole dried long pepper can also be drunk as a tea for its medicinal benefits.
Fresh long pepper is hard to find. If you get your hands on any, it can be pureed and added to sauces, dips, and dressings. Ground long pepper is made from dried long pepper that has been pulverised into a coarse or fine powder. Use this as you would black pepper by adding it to curries, salads, vegetables, stir-fries, soups, marinades, and steaks.
Cubeb is another type of pepper from the Piper family, also sometimes known as Java pepper or tailed pepper. While cubeb pepper is rarely used in modern European cooking, it was once popular all across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. It was highly prized in the Middle Ages for both its medicinal benefits as well as its flavour. Today, cubeb pepper is mainly used in Middle Eastern cuisine as well as some Indonesian dishes. It is also used to flavour gin, such as Bombay Sapphire, and to make cigarettes. Cubeb’s flavour is most often compared to allspice, or a combination of both allspice and black pepper.
How to use cubeb pepper in cooking
Cubeb pepper was a common ingredient in European cuisine in the Middle Ages. It was often used as a dry-rub for meats or added to sauces. In one medieval recipe, cubeb pepper is used to make sauce sarcenes, a recipe that calls for almond milk combined with numerous spices. Cubeb was also popularly consumed as a confectionary, candied and eaten whole. In Poland, cubeb pepper is infused into a vinegar along with cumin and garlic, used as a marinade for meats.
In Morocco, cubeb pepper is found in various savoury dishes and even some sweet pastries such as markouts. It is also sometimes added to the spice mix ras el hanout. Cubeb can also be found in various Indonesian curries and several Middle Eastern foods.
Despite its name, pink pepper is not a variety of pepper but a small, dried berry that belongs to the cashew family. The small fruits get their name thanks to their being similar in size and appearance to black peppercorns. Pink peppers are a sweet, bright, and fruity berry that has a very mild peppery heat. They add a great flavour to meat dishes, eggs, chicken, and seafood dishes. Pink pepper is also popular when paired with chocolates and other desserts like ice cream ,adding a pleasant pink colour and mild kick. They’re also popular in cocktails and sauces, adding both flavour as well as a nice splash of pink colour. Because they are a part of the cashew family, pink peppercorns can cause allergic reactions in those who cannot consume tree nuts.
Grains of paradise
Grains of paradise, also known as ossame and melegueta pepper, are a rare spices that is indigenous to West Africa. They are a member of the ginger family and closely related to cardamom. The flavour of grains of paradise is similar to black pepper, only spicier and with hints of cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. There is also a slight fruitiness to these melegueta peppers.
Grains of paradise are popular in West and North African cuisines. Their unique flavour also makes it popular in gin, craft beers, and akvavit, a distilled spirit made in Norway. While grains of paradise are a relatively obscure spice, they are starting to gain popular interest after use in gourmet cooking by celebrity chefs. The complex flavour profile of these peppers makes them an extremely versatile spice that can be added to a wide range of dishes. Use them as you would with black pepper, adding the signature spiciness but with a dash of intriguing flavours. Try them on roasted veggies, rubbed on meat, or in soups, stocks, and sauces.
These small berries, sometimes called Szechuan pepper, are an extremely important ingredient in Chinese cuisine, especially in the Sichuan province. They are not a part of the black pepper or chili pepper family, but are given their name due to the tingling, numbing effect that they produce. This characteristic numbness associated with sichuan peppers mimics the heat of those spices.
Sichuan peppers are extremely aromatic and have a slightly fruity or citrusy flavour. They can be used whole, fresh or dried, although the dried versions are most often used in cooking. Sichuan peppers are one of the ingredients used in Chinese five-spice powder and a staple of Chongqing hot pot. They can be used as a marinade for chicken, duck, or pork. The oil of sichuan peppers can be used in salad dressings, dipping sauces, or any dishes where you want the taste of sichuan without the peppers themselves. They can also be added to thick yoghurt sauces and mixed into noodles and stir-fries.
Sansho pepper, also known as Japanese pepper, is similar to sichuan pepper in that it also creates a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue. The spice is native to Japan but is also popular in Korean cuisine. Sansho pepper is often added to spicy seasonings to give an extra kick and an aromatic flavour. It is also used to season rice and is one of the seven main ingredients used in shichimi, a Japanese spice mix. Sansho pepper is perfect for cutting through the fattiness of pork, eel, and rich mushrooms.
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