Black pepper or chilli pepper: Will the real pepper please stand up?


Black pepper or chilli pepper: Will the real pepper please stand up?

A flavoursome spice and a fleshy fruit… here’s how both of them got the same title



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Will the real pepper please stand up? Image used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Shutterstock

Your eggs would taste a little less tasty without the spice, and your pizza would remain incomplete with the vegetable. We are talking about peppers – both black and chilli – that travelled the world over to reach our kitchens. However, both of them are from two different plants yet have the same name. How? Read on…

A short history lesson of ‘pepper’ and ‘pepper’

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Kerala in India was known as the ‘garden of spices’. Image used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Shutterstock

It was the year 3000 BC, when the southern state of Kerala in India was known as the ‘garden of spices’. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, and other spices grew in abundance in its alluvial soils. Among these was the humble black pepper – a spicy berry – which farmers tirelessly worked to cultivate for food and medicine.

When the word spread, eventually, Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians were drawn by it so much that they set sail to the southern Malabar coast of India, to see it for themselves. By 600 BC, the Arabs had taken control of the spice trade and took most of the spices back to the Middle East. For the longest time, Arabia flourished with the trade of spices up until 334 BC. The Greeks, specifically Alexander the Great’s naval might, soon overran it. After his death in 323 BC, Rome became in charge of the spice trade up until the Barbarians took over the country in 410 AD and black pepper became a distant memory. This period was called the ‘Dark Ages’.

Arab traders capitalized on the gap and to keep others from seeking it out, told of a dragon-like serpent that guarded the pepper plant, and how only if the tree is burned down will you get black pepper. It worked. Then, from the ashes of the fallen Roman Empire rose the Venetians, whose naval might grew and they took over the pepper trade via Egypt.

Initially, black pepper was a spice consumed by the elite. This was during the Middle Ages.

As time passed, the spice trade was taken over by the Portuguese and the Spaniards. Spain sent navigator and explorer Christopher Columbus to India in 1492, in search of pepper and other spices. As Columbus set sail, he came across an island somewhere in East of America and thought he had reached the ‘garden of spices’. However, he had reached the Americas.

Columbus trails

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Columbus reaches an island somewhere in East Asia thinking it is the ‘garden of spices’. Image used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Shutterstock

On arrival, Columbus noticed that the people of the island cultivated a crop with a fleshy fruit. His curiosity led him to eat the fruit and be shocked by its spice level. He decided that he would call these spicy fruits ‘pepper’ instead. He took it back to Spain along with cows, tomatoes and everything else he could get his hands on.

When he returned with these new-found ‘peppers’, the King and Queen of Spain forgot all about black pepper and started commercialising these fleshy fruits instead. While the Europeans continued to substitute chilli pepper for the real pepper, it took Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to put it back on the map for Europe and the rest of the world after he travelled to the ‘garden of spices’ in 1497.

Da Gama’s voyage made Lisbon very rich with black pepper and he took Spain’s famed chilli pepper to India. However, it didn’t have much of a use because the Indians continued to use black pepper until the rise of the Mughal Empire in the 15th century.

Pepper shrimp recipe

Peppered shrimps
The British popularised both chilli pepper and black pepper the world over. Image used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Shutterstock

The spice wars continued over the years - the Dutch fought for dominance over the spice trade for the longest time but the British finally took over the spice trade while colonising India in the 19th century. They then popularised both chilli pepper and black pepper the world over. As for Christopher Columbus, he died without discovering the real black pepper.

Here is a wonderful pepper shrimp recipe to try. We promise it is the real deal!

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