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Kasma Loha-unchit, February 18th, 2010

Peppercorns Spiced Up Asian Foods Before Chiles

Fresh green peppercorns

Fresh green peppercorns

Although we mostly associate chile peppers with Thai food, it was Peppercorns that provide heat for many centuries.

The fiery hot foods of India, western China and Southeast Asia had quite a different character prior to the sixteenth century. Those chile peppers, which today are so inseparable from many of Asia’s cuisines, did not actually arrive until the adventuring Portugese first sailed into the fabled ports of the Far East.

Before then, the main source of the spicy hot flavor came from peppercorns, the berries of a tropical vine indigenous to the region. Indeed, it was peppercorns that led to Columbus’s discovery of America and, along with it, the discovery of chiles, natives of the New World. Black pepper was highly prized in Europe in the Middle Ages and Columbus convinced the Spanish Court that he could find a shorter route to India so that the demands for the spice could be more quickly satisfied.

Greet peppercorns in brine

Green peppercorns in brine

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Instead of India, his voyage west was intercepted by the unexpected land mass later named the American continent. Instead of black pepper, he found chiles (that’s why chiles became known as chile “peppers” and native peoples of the new land were called “Indians.”) He brought chile peppers back to Europe but they did not catch on like black pepper. Later, the Portugese followed after Columbus’s footsteps to America, found chiles to be very effective in preventing scurvy and carried them in their explorations around the world.

In Asia, we use pepper in all its stages of development. Sprigs of very aromatic, young green berries appear in stir-fried dishes, curries, soups and dipping sauces. As pepper berries mature, they change from light green to dark green and then begin to turn red. Picked before fully matured, the peppercorns are dried, the outer peel turning black and shriveled, and this is the form most popular in the west. Fully ripened red berries are allowed to ferment briefly in a warm place, then their peel is rubbed off, revealing irregularly white seeds.

White peppercorns

White peppercorns

Sometimes, white peppercorns are bleached with lime to make them very white, though this process often removes some of the flavor but yields a ground powder preferred by the French for white sauces. In China and many Southeast Asian cultures, unbleached white pepper is preferred and more prevalently used than black pepper, adding punch to all sorts of dishes, from soups and appetizers to meat and seafood dishes.

Pepper and garlic make great companions. In Southeast Asia, we frequently add cilantro root to make a wonderful trio of flavors. They are ground up or chopped and pounded together with a mortar and pestle to a paste, which is then seasoned with fish sauce or soy sauce and a pinch of sugar, rubbed on meats or seafoods and then grilled over hot charcoals, or stir-fried.

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, February 2010.

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