Black pepper (piper nigum), the world's most widely used spice, originated in the rain forests of Kerala, and has reigned as the "master spice" from its earliest usage about 4,000 years ago. This spice commanded great respect centuries ago, and practically changed the course of history by playing a key role in the development of trade and conquest. The world today consumes as much black pepper as all other spices combined. It is used in one way or other in most cuisines and it is used to prepare just about every kind of dish, including desserts.
Black pepper corns are the sun-dried fruit of the pepper vine. The aroma of pepper comes from essential oils while the pungency in pepper comes form the presence of an alkaloid called piperine. Freshly crushed, pepper has better flavor and aroma. These peppercorns are available in varying sizes, aroma and pungency.
Pepper grows on climbing evergreen perennial vines with large leaves. It has broad shiny green leaves and white flowers that grow on slender spikes. The pepper plant requires long rainy season and fairly high temperatures and partial shade for best growth. The tropical climate and the heavy monsoons of Kerala are ideal for this plant. New plants are produced from cuttings. In two to five years the plant begins to produce flowers that yield small green berries resembling a bunch of tiny grapes. As the berries ripen they begin to turn yellowish red in color.
Today pepper is cultivated in most tropical regions of the world. There are pepper plantations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. India and Indonesia together produce about half of the pepper traded in the world markets. Kerala accounts for about 95% of the pepper farmland and 97% of the pepper production in India. Pepper is marketed in four different colors: black, white, red and green. It is interesting to note that all four varieties can be harvested from the same pepper plant by changing the time of harvest and processing method.
To read more about the history, legends and much more about pepper go to Along the Peppertrail.