Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest in Spice Mountain’s Library series. This time we’re focussing on pepper, a spice which while everyone is familiar with, has a lot more to it than simple black peppercorns. There is a world of different peppers (many of which are not actually pepper at all, as we’ll discover!) to explore, and it’s a great spice to experiment with; even the different varieties of black peppercorn vary so much in flavour and character. I’ve chosen Japanese Sancho Pepper as Spice of the Week, one of the more ‘exotic’ peppercorns we offer, and one of my favourites. And one of the recipes is again one of my favourite things when it comes to a simple supper; Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, an Italian dish starring pasta, cheese, black pepper – and that’s it!
So next in the series will be Chilli, just to inject a bit of real heat into the proceedings! I hope you enjoy this pepper edition, and that it gives you some ideas to fill the days while the lockdown continues. Speaking of which, I hope and trust you are all safe and well, and managing to stay sane!
Until next time, stay safe!
Spice of the Week – Japanese Sancho Pepper
From Japan, the Sancho is one of the false ‘flag peppers’, in that botanically it is not a pepper at all, but part of the citrus family. It is similar to the Sichuan pepper in its appearance, and in its flavour profile (although it is milder) – fruity and sharp with a slightly numbing heat.
Generally sold ground, these whole berries stay fresher and sharper. They can be ground in a mortar & pestle for seasoning purposes.
In Japan, sancho is traditionally used to season grilled eels, and it is also one of the seven main spices used in sashimi mix. Also it is a main ingredient in teriyaki, and can be used with or instead of red chilli in many more dishes.
It is wonderful too used as a part of your own peppercorn mix for general use, giving the mix a distinctly fruity and exotic edge. A very versatile spice!
This Week’s Recipes
One of the most popular dishes in Cambodia is this delicious stir fry, spicy and vibrant, which is easy to make and always a winner! It may surprise some to see tomato ketchup in the recipe, but this is quite common in Asian cooking, and it works. It is best to get the best steak you can afford for this dish, and it is a good idea to have everything for serving, such as the salad on the plates, ready before cooking as you will want to get your Lok Lak from the wok to the table and the hungry waiting mouths as quickly as possible
This lovely, spicy concoction is an ever-present on any vegetable thali served in South Indian restaurants, indeed in the region it is a staple food. The flavours of South India are brought by curry leaves and plenty of black pepper, along with plenty of chilli for heat and tamarind for sourness. It can be served as part of an Indian buffet, or equally enjoyed by itself with some paratha, roti or chapati for a light meal. A note on curry leaves – they are undoubtedly best bought fresh, but can be fiendishly difficult to find; the dried ones we stock will work fine for this soup however and the unique flavour and aroma is essential in this soup.
One of the simplest pasta dishes there is, but nothing wrong with that! Pasta, cheese and black pepper; what’s not to like? Of course the secret is to use the best black pepper you can find, so we point you in the direction of Parameswaram’s Wynad Black Peppercorns, the king of the castle when it comes to pepper. Its luxuriously fragrant and warm flavour will elevate this simple dish. Making the sauce with the pasta water makes this dish lighter than say a cream based sauce, and like a Carbonara the pasta is the main event rather than the sauce.
Spice Mountain’s Pepper Library
The trail of peppercorns can be found scattered throughout human history, back to antiquity and beyond. This tiny black berry has been a currency, a reason for the Age of Discovery and a cause of national conflict, and today is found universally, in every pantry and on every dining table. From its native home on the Monsoon coast of India, it has come to be grown all over the world, in a dazzling array of varieties. It is prized for its warm, spicy flavour and also for its medicinal properties, and remains the world’s most traded spice.
The range of varieties is only increased by what we call ‘false-flag’ peppers, similar spices which are not actually variants of piperum negrum but plants in their own right. They tend to come under the pepper umbrella due to having similar aroma and flavour properties, and often a close resemblance in appearance (though many false flag peppers are different colours). Also calling something ‘pepper’ will increase its market value. Two common and familiar examples of false flag peppers are pink peppercorns and allspice (pimiento). (You’ll be able to tell the false flag peppers in this piece as they are marked with an asterisk.)
As with last week’s journey looking at pepper’s ‘other half’, salt, we shall begin in Australia. Here we find Australian Mountain Pepper* (also known as Tasmanian Pepperberry), which grows wild in Tasmania and Southeastern Australia. It has a very similar flavour profile to standard black pepper, although it is considerably hotter on the palate. It can be used in a peppermill, and is excellent in slow-cooked dishes due to its intense taste. An interesting fact is that it is exported to Japan to flavour wasabi.
Moving up to Indonesia we encounter one of our favourites, Long Pepper*. As its name implies, this is a long, slim berry which has a slightly hotter flavour than black pepper, along with generally being more rounded and complex, not a million miles away from ground mixed spice. It is used a great deal in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking, and is also used in India (it is a very important element of the Ayurvedic diet) where it is known as pippali. An interesting way to use this delightful spice is to grind over fresh pineapple, or to cut through the richness of a chocolate cake. Also from Indonesia is Cubeb pepper* also known as Java Pepper or Tailed Pepper (this due to the little stalk left on the berry). This was a popular pepper substitute in the Middle Ages, and has a flavour which has notes of allspice and nutmeg, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It works really well in North African dishes, and is often a component of ras el hanout.
In Thailand Green Peppercorns are a common spice. In Thai cooking they are usually used fresh, but dried will work. They are actually the same plant as black pepper, but the berries are picked earlier, before they ripen. This means they have a lighter flavour than black, so there is no risk of the pepper overpowering the dish. Because of this, they form the basis of a classic French sauce, sauce au poivre vert, usually served with steak. They are also used in a classic peppermill mix, alongside black and pink.
Cambodia boasts probably the highest quality Southeast Asian pepper, Kampot. This has a fascinating story behind it; it has a long history, but its use first became widespread during the years of French rule in Indochina. The dark days of the 1970s resulted in the destruction of virtually all pepper plantations, but recently it has bounced back to become the first Cambodian product to receive Protected Area of Origin status. It has a gorgeous aroma and flavour, and is an integral part of the national dish, Lok Lak (marinated and stir-fried beef). Spice Mountain offers Kampot pepper in its black, red and white forms (these are the same berry, picked at different stages of ripening).
Over the border, Vietnam is nowadays the world’s largest producer of standard black peppercorns. We use Vietnamese peppercorns for our standard ‘Everyday’ peppercorn, as they have a nice, rounded pepper flavour and heat. It is the perfect choice for the peppermill, and for cooking. There are however a couple of wild cards in the Vietnamese pepper pantry; first Wild Forest Pepper*, a rare pepper which grows in the far Northwest of the country. It is handpicked from prickly ash trees in the forest, then roasted over wood fires. Flavour-wise it is similar to Szechuan pepper, without so much of the mouth-numbing quality, and has distinctive citrus notes. This is great to grind over Asian green vegetables such as kai lan or choi sum, and matches well with ginger and star anise. The other Vietnamese treasure is Wild Cubeb* pepper (the majority of Cubeb is Indonesian, as we discovered earlier). This is a wonderfully fragrant pepper, packed with citrus aromas of kaffir lime and lemon grass, and the flavour is just as good. It makes a distinctive table condiment, and works well in any Asian dish, especially when used as an alternative to fresh green peppercorns.
Next we come to Japan, where the prevalent pepper is the deliciously complex Sancho*. This is ubiquitous in Japanese food, as an ingredient in sashimi and teriyaki, and also as part of the seasoning blend Shichimi Togarishi. It has a lovely fruity and sharp flavour, and a little of the mouth-numbing quality we find in Szechuan pepper, and matches really well with anything to do with citrus (the plant it comes from is actually a citrus plant, rather than a pepper one). It is also commonly used alongside, or instead of, red chilli, and it is an interesting alternative to regular pepper in the peppermill. Sancho is also commonly used in Korean cuisine.
You will probably be familiar with our next pepper, China’s Szechuan Pepper*. Szechuan food is popular all over the world nowadays, and Szechuan pepper is one of its basic elements, alongside fiery Facing Heaven chilli. It has a bold, intense, almost menthol quality to it, along with quite aggressive heat, and is the daddy among those peppers which have a ‘mouth-numbing’ quality. Due to these flavour properties it is really good with fatty meats such as pork and duck, as it cuts through the richness. Spice Mountain also offers Green Szechuan* pepper, which has less of the ‘mouth-numbing’ quality and more floral, pine notes in the flavour along with citrus. This makes them great to use with chicken, fish or seafood, and one idea is to toast them with some Himalayan pink salt before grinding to make a tastebud-tingling dip for deep fried squid or king prawns.
Travel west then over the Himalayas and you find yourself in Nepal, where a close relative of Szechuan pepper is an essential item in the nation’s cooking. This is Timur pepper*, which has the same tongue tingling qualities paired with intense citrus and grapefruit notes, making it perfect for fish dishes. It is commonly used in dry vegetable dishes, especially potatoes, and also with tomato-based dishes. It is always used in Nepali curry powders, giving them a different character to Indian ones.
Which takes us to India, home of the peppercorn. We’ll stop first in the Northeastern state of Assam, where we find a new favourite of ours, Assam pepper*. This wild pepper is shaped like a tiny blackberry, and is gathered in the tropical forests of the state. It has a unique smoky and earthy flavour, reminiscent of Chinese Pu’er tea, and also has a little of that familiar tongue tingling element. We use this as an alternative to cloves to stud a roasted ham or gammon, and like many other peppers it is really good used with tropical fruit such as pineapple or mango.
It is now time to meet the Big Boys, and to do this we need to travel south, to the state of Kerala. This is the original home of piperum negrum, the point zero of pepper, and the standard commercial variety grown here is Tellicherry. They have a high volatile oil content, resulting in a strong and robust flavour, and their flavour is best enjoyed ground directly onto food. This makes them perfect for the peppermill. Their flavour is always present in the food of Kerala (and also neighbouring states such as Tamil Nadu), and it often predominates over the chilli which is also used. This is best demonstrated in Sambhar, a thin lentil and vegetable broth which is a staple food of the area.
Up a level from Telllicherry is what is commonly acknowledged as the King of pepper. This is Wynad, a pepper grown on a single estate (by Parameswaram’s) in the district of the same name. They are ripened on the vine (unlike most black pepper) and harvested by hand, and their flavour is the benchmark by which the flavour of pepper should be defined. Intense yet subtle, aromatic and complex, it is unparalleled. This special flavour is dulled (but by no means lost) when subjected to cooking, so Wynad should ideally be ground over food directly, or at the end of cooking. There is none of the abrasive, aggressive character that cheaper black peppers sometimes have. All in all, the champagne of the pepper world, and something every pantry should contain. Spice Mountain stock both black and white Parameswaram’s.
Sri Lanka is a large centre of pepper growing, and while the quality of the product cannot really compare to Wynad, it is still excellent. Spice Mountain’s Sri Lankan peppercorns come from the Matale area, and have a flavour which is fragrant, bold and spicy. It is good to use when you are looking for an immediate pepper hit, so great in a pepper sauce for steak, and they are also good for curry dishes such as the Sambhar mentioned earlier, and also a Madras style dish. If you’re a fan of hot, bold pepper, this is the peppermill choice for you.
Onwards to Africa, then, and the island of Madagascar, where we find a lovely wild tailed pepper called Voatsiperifery*. This is a very rare spice, harvested annually and in small quantities – 10kg of fresh berries yields only 1kg of dried peppercorns. Its flavour is woody and earthy, with a medium heat, and it also has a lovely zesty character. It can be used in place of regular black pepper when something a little different is required, but this one is best ground in a mortar and pestle rather than a grinder, to keep ahold of more of the flavour.
Cameroon in West Africa is the home of Penja pepper, another of our more luxurious products. It is grown in a remote valley and only 18 tons are harvested each year. Also the nature of the soil it is grown in, rich and volcanic, intensifies its oils and nutrients. A white pepper, it has a less fierce flavour than black and has distinct creamy notes, making it great for using in white sauces and mashed potato.
Also from West Africa is Selim pepper*, which is also known as Senegal pepper. This is a false flag pepper which is a pod rather than a berry, and it has a unique musky flavour which you will find in many Ghanaian, Nigerian and Senegalese dishes, for instance the popular Jollof rice. The best way to use Selim pepper is to toast the pods in a dry pan before crushing; bear in mind the seeds of the pod are slightly bitter and astringent, and these can be removed before use if you prefer.
Grains of Paradise* are from this area too, and get their name from their amazingly complex flavour which combines pepper, coriander, ginger and cardamom, with a hint of citrus. They were a popular pepper substitute in olden times and while they have a milder flavour, they still make an interesting alternative. They are sometimes used in baking, and occasionally as a ‘botanical’, an aromatic flavouring in gin.
You’ll remember we came across Long Pepper earlier on, in Indonesia, and Africa has its own version; Ethiopian Timiz pepper*. This looks almost the same as Asian long pepper, but has a distinct flavour all of its own – it is less fruity and sweet, not so hot, and has a deeply aromatic character. Also as the climate in Ethiopia isn’t favourable to sun-drying, Timiz is generally dried near an open flame, giving it a marked smokiness. In Ethiopian food it is an integral part of Berbere mix, the national spice blend, and we like to use it in braised dishes, particularly those involving game.
There is no pepper grown in Europe, for obvious climatic reasons, but it was of course brought home from tropical lands by early European explorers to become the most commonly used of all spices. There cannot be a single cuisine in Europe that doesn’t take advantage of pepper’s exotic character, even if only as a table condiment. Classic French cooking is heavily reliant on pepper, and one of the classic French spice blends is Quatre Epices, a mixture of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. A similar blend is Spice Mountain’s Aromatic 5 Pepper Blend, which also includes allspice. Italian cooking also uses pepper a great deal, and it is a classic seasoning for pasta. When used as a condiment different varieties of pepper are often combined, for example a Peppermill mix will use white, green, black and often pink peppercorns. Smoked Peppercorns are popular, and pepper is often blended with other ingredients, such as in Lemon Pepper where the lemon brings out pepper’s already powerful citrus notes.
Finally to the Americas. Pink Peppercorns* are native to South America, the fruit of the Peruvian pepper tree. They are a false flag pepper, actually related to the cashew, but came to be called pepper due to their appearance and flavour. They are used for their attractive rose pink colour too, making a great garnish, and as their flavour is slightly sweet and mild they are often used in sweets and desserts. They can also be used to add an interesting flavour to some juices and cocktails.
Allspice*, also known as pimiento and Jamaican pepper, is native to the Caribbean and Mexico but is now grown in many countries around the world. It is a basic element of dishes in its native area, used in both savoury and sweet preparations, and its complex flavour combines cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper. It is also commonly used in European food, to give a warming, aromatic balance to casseroles and stews. Allspice is perhaps the most commonly used of all false flag peppers, and is also present in many spice blends, notably Jamaican Jerk seasoning.
Our last destination is Canada, where a lovely blend called Mignonette Pepper is used in French-Canadian dishes. This is a combination of black and white peppercorns with the addition of coriander seed, which give the mix a lovely floral, citrus character. This is used as a cooking ingredient and a table condiment, and works very well on steak and other grilled meats.
And so our journey is complete! As we have seen there is a whole world to explore when it comes to pepper and its extended family. And while in olden days this adventure would take months or even years, nowadays (thanks to Spice Mountain) you have done the entire trip from the comfort of your own home. Hope you’ve enjoyed it!
PS You may find you need one of these handy accessories for your pepper