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How Pepper Went From “Black Gold” to Everyday Seasoning

It was Britain’s enterprising nature and quest for food that led to colonization—and effectively changed global cuisine, suggests Lizzie Collingham in The Hungry Empire. There’s no question the spice trade made a permanent impact on the way we eat, one…

It was Britain’s enterprising nature and quest for food that led to colonization—and effectively changed global cuisine, suggests Lizzie Collingham in The Hungry Empire. There’s no question the spice trade made a permanent impact on the way we eat, one of the largest being the discovery of black pepper. Native to the Malabar Coast of India (present day Kerala), black pepper, or Piper nigrum, is a flowering vine that is cultivated for its fruit, the peppercorn. Regarded as the world’s most traded spice, black pepper gets its spicy warmth from a compound called piperine. Now considered a commonplace ingredient in the pantry (right after salt, and often ground into dust and left to sit on supermarket shelves for long before it’s used to season food), black pepper’s treatment in many kitchens can only be described as unfortunate. We seem to have forgotten about its glorious early years—and its contribution to myriad styles of cuisine.

The spice trade started before the Common Era, with Arab merchants in the Middle East who controlled and conducted the luxury goods business along the Silk Road, an important pathway that connected Asia to the Middle East and other parts of North Africa and Europe, which eventually led to the Romans entering the market. While there are records of black pepper in ancient Greek and Roman texts, the spice was largely popularized in the late 15th century, after a discovery by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama on the shores of Calicut (present day Kozhikode), India—the spice was so abundant, it ultimately led to Portuguese domination of the area.

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