“Bales of pepper are brought to market from each house, and gold received in exchange from the Roman ships is brought to shore in sackfuls” wrote a second century Tamil poet. Pepper was the most eagerly sought after spice in ancient Rome, and could be obtained in only one place: southern India. The word ‘pepper’ also comes from the same source: it is derived from the Sanskrit pippali. Both black and white pepper were prized in ancient Rome, but only the more expensive white variety was taxed. Black pepper was considered such an essential commodity, used by even the poorest citizens, that it was exempt from all customs duties.
Though Europeans ate a great deal of pepper, they knew little about how it was grown. A fourteenth century book claimed that: "Serpents keep the woods that pepper groweth in and when the woods of pepper are ripe, men of that country set them on fire and chase away the serpents by violence of fire. And by burning the grain of pepper that was white by kind, is made black."
Reality is a little less exciting. Peppercorns are the berries of a climbing vine that grows over 50 feet tall in lush tropical jungles, twining itself around trees for support.
Green unripe berries are picked and boiled in water, after which they are sun-dried until they shrivel and turn black. Pepper vines were first cultivated millennia ago in the hills along the coast of southern India, and some of the best varieties such as Malabar and Tellicherry still come from Kerala where pepper is an important spice in local cuisine.
Fresh green peppercorns, picked right off the vine are often used in Kerala curries for their crisp, spicy bite.
Green peppercorns are produced by picking and drying pepper berries well before they are fully mature. Their flavour is much milder than that of black pepper.
To produce white pepper, berries are picked when ripe, soaked for several days in water until soft, and the outer skin and pulp rubbed off leaving only the white seed. White pepper is much less aromatic than black, but some cooks prefer using it to avoid having unseemly black specks in light colored sauces.
Pink or rose peppers create much confusion, because they are not related to pepper vines at all. They are bright red berries that grow on trees that are part of the cashew tree family, and have a mildly peppery taste when dried.
Different preparation techniques - frying, toasting or grinding, bring out widely different flavours from pepper. Pepper grinders filled with a blend of whole peppercorn in all four colours can be found in supermarkets for adding a final flourish of colour and flavour to a finished dish.
Crispy, peppery paneer skewers make delicious appetizers for a summer barbecue. Eat 'em right off the grill while their insides are still soft and gooey!
If you're looking for variety, try Tandoori Paneer, Pepper Roast Chicken or Saffron Chicken Tikka With Black Pepper
Pepper Paneer Tikka
400g Paneer (Indian cottage cheese)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 inch piece ginger, minced
2 tbsp each: oil, lemon juice, plain Greek/Balkan style yogurt
Salt to taste
1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper or mixed pepper blend, divided
1/2 tsp each: garam masala, paprika
2 tbsp each: all purpose flour, fine breadcrumbs
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Cut paneer into 2 inch long X 1/2 inch thick slices (about 10-12 slices) or cube into bite sized squares. Place in deep mixing bowl.
Combine garlic, ginger, oil, lemon juice, yogurt, salt, garam masala, paprika and 1 tsp of the pepper in small bowl, mix well to blend.
Pour over paneer in bowl, tossing gently to coat completely. Cover and refrigerate for one hour or longer up to overnight.
Note: Let paneer soften at room temperature an hour before grilling, to make it easier to thread onto skewers.
When ready to grill, heat barbecue to medium high. Soak small sized bamboo skewers for 15 min in cold water.
Thread paneer onto skewers without overcrowding.
Combine flour, breadcrumbs and remaining 1 tsp pepper in small flat plate.
Roll each skewer of paneer in prepared breadcrumb pepper mixture till lightly coated all over.
Place on grill and cook covered until lightly browned and slightly crisp, about 7 min per side, turning skewers once. Brush lightly with additional oil at the end of cooking, if necessary.
Note: Paneer can also be cooked in the oven without skewers. Heat oven to 450F. Place paneer pieces on parchment lined tray and bake for 12 min. Place under the broiler for 2 min to brown tops lightly.
Serve right away with wedges of lemon.