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Peppercorns – Prik Thai

by Kasma Loha-unchit

See also: Information on Thai chillies | Blog entry on Peppercorns

Fresh Green PeppercornsPrior to the introduction of chilies into Asia by Portugese and Spanish adventurers during the sixteenth century, the spicy cuisines of India, southwestern China and Southeast Asia had a much different character. Pepper in the form of white, black, green and red peppercorns, rather than chilies, was a primary source of the spicy heat now overshadowed by the more intense chili pepper.

Ironically, it was black pepper that opened the doorway to the discovery of chili and its eventual migration to a continent where it was to become inseparable from the cultures and cuisines of its many spice-loving peoples. Christopher Columbus sailed west in search for a shorter route to India to obtain this treasured spice in the European cooking of his day. On that voyage, Columbus did not land in India, though he called the people there "Indians," and did not find black pepper, though he called the fiery chilies there "pepper."

The berries of a tropical vine native to India, peppercorns are used in different stages of ripeness. When young and green, they are soft, highly aromatic and mildly hot. In Southeast Asia, short segments of stems with rows of small green berries clinging are tossed into spicy stir-fried dishes, dry curries, dipping sauces and intensely flavored soups. They are chewed on for a refreshing burst of flavor. Occasionally, sprigs of these young green peppercorns can be found in frozen bags in Thai markets, although freezing would have turned them black. They are also packed in brine in stout glass jars. Some gourmet grocery stores that carry an assortment of exotic international food products sell loose, green peppercorns in small, skinny glass jars, which taste much the same.

As the green berries mature, they start to turn pink and red. If picked at this time and dried in the sun, the outer covering turns black and shrivels, giving black peppercorns their characteristic look. When permitted to fully ripen on the vine, the berries turn bright red; they are picked and placed in a moist place, or are submerged in a solution for a few days, then their skin rubbed off to yield round whitish seeds called white peppercorns. White peppercorns are not uniformly white, but a mixture of greys and off-whites, until they are put through a "bleaching" process that produces the evenly white peppercorns sold in supermarkets. Because bleaching also leaches out some of the flavor, use the less uniformly white peppercorns available from Asian markets and specialty stores if you wish a more fragrant aroma and spicier flavor.

For a refreshingly aromatic peppery taste, grind your own pepper when you need it. Use a pepper mill, mortar and pestle, or if you are grinding a large amount, a clean coffee grinder designated solely for grinding dry spices. Pre-ground pepper loses aroma and flavor over time.

Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.

Copyright © 2009 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

A great photo of Black-Peppered Crab, a delicious Thai dish.

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