Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Black pepper


Black pepper is probably the most important and popular spice in the whole world. It is added to almost every savoury dish, hot or cold, imparting a sharp and pungent flavour.

Native to southern India, black pepper sparked the start of the spice trade between Asia and Europe and the need for this valuable spice prompted European explorers to travel and trade all over the world.

The pepper plant
Black pepper or black peppercorns are obtained from the pepper plant. This plant grows in tropical areas such as India and Southeast Asia to a height of several metres.

The pepper plant is allowed to grow for a minimum of three years during which time small flowers form, which then develop into berries. The berries are subsequently picked or harvested, whilst they are still green in colour and unripe, and then dried until they shrivel and turn dark brown or black in colour. The end result is what is known as the peppercorn.

The history of black pepper

Black pepper has a history of at least 4000 years. It is indigenous to India and gradually began to make its way eastwards to Southeast Asia where it is now also cultivated and grown. Some of the major producers of black pepper nowadays are India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and China.

Pepper was so valuable for a number of reasons, one of them being its ability to disguise food that was not as fresh as it should have been. It was also used to liven up and give a kick to dishes that were somewhat tasteless and not very appetizing otherwise.

For these reasons and more pepper was not only used as a spice and seasoning for food, it was also a used as a method of payment in exchange for other goods and even to pay taxes, dowries and even rent.

In ancient Greece, pepper was offered to the gods in sacred rituals and was even swapped for gold. Fortunately, nowadays pepper is not that expensive.

The health benefits of black pepper
Black pepper is known to treat and help a number of ailments. The essential oil of black pepper is often added to massage blends and applied to aching or painful joints and muscles, whether the pain is sports related or through arthritic or rheumatic pain.

Black pepper also plays a major role in the metabolism and the digestion of food and it can help to settle the stomach and relieve gas.

Below are other healing qualities that black pepper is known or reputed to have:
  • Black pepper induces sweating, which consequently cools down the body and relieves feverish symptoms.
  • Black pepper is useful for those with poor circulation.
  • It is said to promote mental clarity, which is useful when studying.
  • It can help clear up colds, viral infections and flu when prepared in a tea.
  • Black pepper helps to prevent gas and flatulence.
  • It induces urination, which is good when the kidneys are not functioning properly.
  • Black pepper is a powerful anti-oxidant.
  • It is antibacterial, which was useful for meat preservation before the time of refrigerators.
  • Black pepper helps to break down and digest fats and meat proteins much more easily, as it induces the production of saliva and gastric juices needed for digestion in the stomach.
  • Black pepper is a good source of manganese and iron, which are important for the body to function correctly.
  • Components of black pepper are often added to mouthwashes and gargles used to treat sore throats.
  • Black pepper is a stimulant that can stimulate various parts of the body such as the heart, kidneys, circulation and the stomach.
  • When foods are eaten with black pepper, the body is able to absorb valuable vitamins and nutrients from the food much easier.
  • Black pepper has been used to treat fatigue and tiredness.
  • It stimulates the appetite and has been used to treat anorexics and people with eating disorders.
  • A strong black pepper and mint tea will help clear chest and lung infections and bring up unwanted mucous and phlegm.
Buying and storing black pepper
Black pepper can be bought either as whole peppercorns or ground pepper. Ground black pepper is not as pungent or flavourful as freshly ground peppercorns and it does not keep for as long either.

One of the reasons why black peppercorns were so valuable centuries ago is because they can be stored for almost indefinitely without losing their quality, taste or aroma.

Dishes always taste better when freshly ground black pepper is added near the end of cooking time or just before serving.

Ideas for using black pepper in the kitchen
Black pepper can be added to almost any savoury dish imaginable but surprisingly, it can also be added to sweet biscuits and cakes in order to spice them up and add a quirky twist.

Here are some more ideas of how to use black pepper in your cooking:
  • Add to salad dressings with salt, olive oil and cider vinegar.
  • Add to omelettes, egg mayonnaise and other cheese and egg dishes.
  • Black pepper can be added to strawberries or pineapple.
  • It can be added to soups, stocks, sauces, marinades and stews.
  • Use to flavour homemade hamburgers, rissoles and sausages.
  • Use to rub onto meats, poultry and fish before roasting or cooking.
  • Use to make pepper sauce.
  • Add to biscuit mixtures for spicy sweet biscuits.
  • Season seafood with black pepper.
  • Add to mashed potato.
  • Use to flavour dips, salsas and cold sauces. 

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