Meet the Pipers
BLACK PEPPER AND ITS SIBLINGS BELONG TO A FAMILY OF PLANTS WITH THE MUSICAL-SOUNDING NAME PIPER.
“Pepper is the bride around which everyone dances.”
—JACOB HUSTAERT, 1664, A DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY GOVERNOR OF SRI LANKA.
For most of human history, pepper wasn’t easy to obtain, an essential fact that led this spice to become a major force in world history. Black pepper is indigenous to India, thousands of miles from the ports of Europe. Traders had to get to the source of pepper, and that obsession led to the dawn of global trade.
Like a botanic Helen of Troy, pepper launched a thousand ships. This fiery berry from a tropical vine, a mere wrinkled ball of flavor, dragged Europe out of its medieval torpor into the cosmopolitan trading network of the Indian Ocean. Although there were other exotic spices that captivated the Western world, none was as widely used as pepper, and none can claim a wider impact on world history.
Over the centuries, pepper has become a culinary ingredient in almost every culture. Think Indian pepper chicken and shrimp, French steak au poivre, Italian pecorino pepato cheese, German pfeffernüsse cookies, and the dozens of spice blends that incorporate pepper, including most famously quatre épices from France and garam masala from India. Nearly every kind of meat and many cheeses are enlivened by pepper, and it can add a delicious sparkle to desserts and fruit. A commando spice, pepper is a take-charge kind of condiment that refuses to be subtle or delicate.
No one knows when the first human being bit into a peppercorn and decided it would taste good on a piece of meat or in a vegetable stew, but in the West it was the ancient Romans who apparently first made pepper an integral part of their meals. Food was only part of the reason for pepper’s esteem; health played an equally important role. In the Roman Empire, pepper was the equivalent of aspirin, seen as the cure-all for aches and pains and many other conditions. If you had a cough or a fever, or were bitten by a poisonous snake, it was common practice to be given a drink or a salve laced with pepper. Dioscorides, a famous first-century Greek physician who lived during the time of Nero, wrote an herbal guide that was still being consulted in the sixteenth century. He praised the spice’s wonderful properties: “The virtue of all peppers … is to heat, to move a man to make water, to digest, to draw to, to drive away by resolution, and to scour away those things that darken the eyesight.”
Dioscorides influenced generations of physicians. It was he who recommended putting pepper in a drink or a salve to help calm the shakes accompanying fevers; to cure the bites of venomous animals; and to fight coughs and “all diseases about the breast, whether it be licked in or be received in drink.” The spice, he noted, could be chewed with raisins to “draw down thin phlegm out of the head,” drunk with leaves of the “bay tree” to “driveth away gnawing and quite dissolveth it; and mixed with sauces to help digestion.” Pepper could even help remove “morphews” and other foulness in the skin by mixing it with saltpeter.
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The Romans were hardly the first to embrace pepper as an elixir. Long before Roman galleys crossed the Indian Ocean, the Greeks, Chinese, and south Asians had been incorporating pepper into tonics to fight numerous conditions. Belief in the spice’s considerable utility is reflected in India’s ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine, which is more than three thousand years old. In Sanskrit, black pepper is known as maricha or marica, meaning an ability to dispel poison, and it is taken to aid digestion, improve appetite, ease pain, and to cure colds, coughs, and intermittent fevers, among other ailments.
During medieval times in Europe, pepper was firmly established as a culinary ingredient, and it was also a vital part of the apothecary trade, as the frequent references to the spice as a “drug” attest. An essay published in England in 1588 noted that the mixture of three peppers known as Diatrion piperon was famous for its ability to help “conconction, to discuss wind, to do good against the cold affects of the stomack, and yet not to heat the liver or the blood, wherein consisteth as singular propertie of this medicine.” A book published in England in 1596 advised that pepper was “wholesome for the brain,” and another published a year later recommended the spice alone or combined with other substances for conditions ranging from headaches and gas to leprous facial sores and tumors. Even at the turn of the seventeenth century, the naturalists who wrote these guides still relied heavily on Greek and Roman sources for their information about Asian plants.
Many of the properties attributed to pepper some four hundred years ago sound strange today, but modern scientists who are studying the spice are finding that it does improve human health. The spice is still used for a variety of medicinal purposes in Asia, especially in India, and if scientific investigations continue to be successful, pepper may eventually play a role in Western medicine as well, especially in the treatment of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, a topic discussed in the last chapter of this book.
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Black pepper’s renown made it a must-have item for the wealthy, who had a mania for the spice in the Middle Ages. In those days, pepper was guarded by servants in royal households and kept in the private wardrobes of the rich. It was considered a privilege to cook with pepper. Few dishes did not benefit from large quantities, which might be considered stomach-churning today. But for most people, pepper was too expensive—in the year 1439, a pound of pepper was roughly equal to more than two days’ wages in England. Meanwhile, pepper could be traded for gold and silver, and was actually used to pay for labor and goods. Pfeffersack (pepper sack) was a common expression that referred to a merchant who made handsome profits from the pepper trade. Europe itself offered relatively few indigenous spices, mainly saffron (also very expensive) and cumin.
An incredible hunger for pepper and the money it could bring spurred residents of an entire continent to risk adventure on foreign oceans and in foreign lands, and it is within this context that the story of pepper really begins. In the fifteenth century, pepper was the reason why Europeans searched obsessively for an all-ocean route to India. Although they also craved other spices, it was pepper that unleashed the age of discovery, when Europeans hoped to find a way to Asia aboard their own ships, cutting out the Arab middlemen in the pepper trade to earn all of its enormous profits for themselves. Columbus carried peppercorns with him on his 1492 voyage. He wanted to make sure that wherever he made landfall, the natives could tell him where to find pepper.
Like a giant magnet, pepper pulled the world to India, the land of black pepper. Although the Europeans loved pepper, they were the last to join the pepper trade in the Indian Ocean—Gujaratis from the northwest coast of India, Bengalis, Tamils, Arabs, Southeast Asians, and Chinese had been trading the spice for hundreds of years. The great Treasure Fleet of the Ming Dynasty, which sailed as far as the east coast of Africa in the early part of the fifteenth century, made a beeline for the southwestern coast of India to purchase pepper. Great port cities in Malaysia and Indonesia were built on the pepper trade, and thrived long before the Europeans entered the Indian Ocean. These Islamic cities were cosmopolitan places where Southeast Asians, Bengalis, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese lived. But the Europeans were a different sort of customer. They wanted to control the pepper trade, and that meant conquering the port city suppliers, setting in motion a new chapter in the history of pepper and empire.
At the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sail to India when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean, an incredible feat. The Portuguese then spent the next one hundred years trying to gain control of the pepper trade in India and Asia. When they failed, the Dutch and the English attempted to take it over in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The history of black pepper is bound to the two companies that are synonymous with the evils of colonialism, the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and the spice gave birth to the insidious opium trade when the Dutch first offered the narcotic as payment for pepper grown along the Malabar Coast of India. There was a reason why Voltaire wrote that after the year 1500 there was no pepper obtained in India that was “not dyed red with blood.” The rivalry between the northern European mercantile companies penetrated almost all of the pepper ports in Asia, but most notably those in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, and deepened the trading links that had already existed in Asia. The so-called “country trade,” or intra-Asia trade, was especially important to the VOC.
By the time the Americans entered the scene in the nineteenth century, they realized that the pepper trade couldn’t be conquered. These sensible businessmen went about making their own fortunes from pepper, and the import duties on the spice helped shore up the economy of a young nation. When piracy imperiled the pepper trade, President Andrew Jackson sent a U.S. warship to Sumatra, resulting in the first official armed U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia.
Many people in the West today associate Sumatra with coffee, but long before coffee there was pepper. This large island that straddles the equator and nearly touches mainland Asia was the world’s largest producer of pepper for more than two hundred years; hundreds of millions of pounds of pepper poured out of the numerous ports that lined Sumatra’s shores. This island played the lead role in the pepper trade, and its fate influenced the history of India and Southeast Asia.
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Medieval Europeans who had never seen pepper growing in the wild entertained some fanciful notions of its origins. According to Bartholomew the Englishman, who lived in the thirteenth century and wrote encyclopedias, the spice grew on trees in forests guarded by serpents. Its black color was the byproduct of fire. “Pepper is the seed of the fruit of a tree that groweth in the south side of the hill Caucasus in the strong heat of the sun,” he wrote. “And serpents keep the woods that pepper groweth in. And when the woods of pepper are ripe, men of that country set them on fire, and chase away the serpents by violence of fire. And by such burning the grain of pepper that was white by nature is made black.”
This persistent myth wasn’t dispelled until more Europeans began traveling to India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and could see for themselves how pepper grew. An early account was given by the brilliant Portuguese physician and naturalist Garcia da Orta, who lived in Goa and published a profoundly influential treatise on the medicinal plants of India in 1563. But even da Orta believed that black and white pepper came from different climbing plants. Many scholars have published Orta’s drawing of a pepper plant, which has a strangely modern sensibility, resembling the paintings of early twentieth-century cubists. Some fifty years before Orta’s treatise was published, an Italian named Ludovico di Varthema is said to have vividly portrayed the pepper plantations in Calicut, a port city on the southwest coast of India, in his own account about his travels in Asia, published in 1510 to much acclaim.
One of the European travelers to the East who was delighted to see a pepper garden, and who accurately described pepper, was Peter Mundy. An astute Englishman from Cornwall, Mundy was a factor, or merchant, for the East India Company during the early seventeenth century. He spoke Italian, French, and Spanish, in addition to English, and traveled widely in Europe, India, and China, filling his journals with charming drawings. Everything interested him: pepper gardens; the clothing of Chinese and Japanese women; fishes in the Indian Ocean; houses, boats, and royal processions in Sumatra; hairstyles in Madagascar. He was a curious and keen observer who drew what was novel to him at a time when relatively few European traders went to the East.
In 1637 Mundy found a pepper garden in Surat, a city in northwestern India; most likely he had never seen a pepper plant before. The long vines planted at the foot of what he called small betel nut trees immediately caught his eye, perhaps because they reminded him of England. The vines, he wrote in his journal, resembled ivy. “Att the Foote of these trees they sett the pepper plant, which groweth uppe about the said tree to the height of 10 or 12 Foote, Clasping, twyning and fastning it selff theron round about as the Ivy Doth the oake or other trees with us,” he wrote. “They continue 10 to 12 yeare yielding good pepper; then they sett new plants, soe I was told. This yeares Croppe was newly gathered, some of it then lying a Drying in the sunne; yet were there a few clusters, both greene and ripe, left among the leaves on the plant. The berry when it is Ripe beecommeth ruby red and transparent cleare (I mean the substance about the kernel, otherwise greene), as bigge as small pease, sweet and hott in tast. The kernel of the said berry is the pepper indeed. The berry they putt to dry in the sunne and then that outward reddish substance drieth, rivelleth [shrivels] and becommeth black, in few daies, as wee now see it.”
Mundy spent most of his life traveling, and was for a while a merchant for the English East India Company before he switched sides and worked for William Courteen, a rich merchant who established an association that for several decades challenged the monopoly of the Company. Before sailing to India in 1635 for Courteen, Mundy related with a certain wistfulness that he needed to find a ship in order to earn some money: “I had not bin longe att home, but through want of my accustomed Imployment, waistinge of meanes and some other occasions, I resolved once againe for London, to seeke some Voyage or Course to passe away tyme and provide somewhat for the future, which accordingly I performed…”
Aside from his extensive travels, there isn’t that much that is known about Mundy. He was born around 1596 into a merchant family that sold pilchards, or sardines, and he may have married. He probably died in the late 1670s in England. Mundy’s remarkable diaries were never published in his lifetime; they appeared in print for the first time in 1914.
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Wild pepper can be easily overlooked amid the unruly posturing of other tropical plants. The spice doesn’t advertise itself with large, vividly colored flowers, or tease the nose with delicate scents. It doesn’t generate an addictive or hallucinogenic substance, a distinctive aroma, or dazzling color. Its leaves are a modest dark green, shiny on the outside and paler below. Its only small extravagance is the berries it produces. They dangle in clusters from its vines like long pendulous earrings. After drying, the green berries become black, wrinkly little balls, each harboring a single seed—the peppercorn—the jewel delivering the mouthwatering kick that is its sine qua non.
Pepper is a woody climbing vine, and it still grows wild in its original home in the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats, the mountains lying along India’s southwest coast, in what is now the state of Kerala. On this coast, the pepper ports of Calicut and Cochin served traders from many faraway empires. At one time, pepper vines were planted by the people here at the onset of the monsoon in June, and nearly every household had pepper plants that trailed on jack, mango, or on any other available tree.
In the botanical world, pepper belongs to a genus of plants with the musical-sounding name Piper. This fifelike genus was created in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist whose system for classifying plants is still in use today. He placed seventeen species in the Piper genus, and probably appropriated the ancient Greek name for black pepper, Peperi, as the basis for the group. The official botanical name for black pepper is the Latin Piper nigrum (nigrum is the species name). Although nigrum means black, white pepper comes from the same plant, a fact that confounded even the most learned observers. The difference depends on when the berries are picked and dried. Black pepper is picked when the berries are still green, while white pepper is picked later, when the berries have turned from green to red. The berries are placed in water to remove their tough outer covering, and are then dried, as Peter Mundy observed.
Pepper isn’t a fast-maturing plant. It takes several years for the branching woody vines to mature, and during their growth the vines can reach up to thirty feet. Trees, wooden poles, reinforced concrete poles, and other material are used as supports. The pepper berries are handpicked when they are ready for harvesting, which usually begins some two to three years after planting. Preparing the berries for market involves a lengthy process of drying, cleaning, and sorting. The plant loves the warm, humid, rainy tropics, in a narrow band around the equator. Pepper also requires well-drained soils, and its preferred habitat is forests. Unshaded plants exposed too long to the scorching sun will not yield many berries. The colorful mixes of whole peppercorns seen in many markets today contain green and black peppercorns. Although there are pink peppercorns, the ripest berries, the sweet pink little balls in some peppercorn mixes aren’t true peppers but hail from the cashew family of Brazil.
Black pepper has gotten plenty of competition from its siblings during the course of human history. In ancient Rome, Indian long pepper (botanically, Piper longum), was preferred. Long pepper, a shrublike plant—as opposed to a vine—displays long, dull, leathery green leaves. Piper longum, a native of northeastern India, was nearly twice as expensive as black pepper in Rome. Today, long pepper is rarely found in the West, although it is still used in India. Cubeb pepper, another Piper sibling, is called Javanese pepper, and it originated in Indonesia. Cubebs look like black peppercorns, except they have a kind of tail. Some types of gin are infused with cubeb pepper.
Yet another famous member of the pepper family, Piper betle, is well known today in Asia, although it is not a spice. Commonly called paan in India, betel is chewed like a plug of tobacco or a wad of gum, and the telltale red spittle it produces is easily spotted on the street. Betel chewers prepare the plug by spreading a thin layer of lime on a fresh betel leaf and adding a sliver of areca nut and a mixture of spices. The nuts, spices, and lime are then wrapped in the leaf. The betel sandwich is reported to aid digestion, freshen the breath, and induce euphoria—the principal reason why it is so popular today among young people in Taiwan, India, and other countries. Over the past decade, unfortunately, medical researchers have linked betel chewing to a rising incidence of oral cancer in Asia. The culprit seems to be the areca nut, not the betel.
Betel chewing isn’t a modern phenomenon. The Chinese used betel leaf at least as early as the Tang Dynasty, 618 to 906 A.D., and the Europeans who made their way to India four hundred years ago often remarked on the practice, which became fashionable among some Europeans living in Asia. By the sixteenth century, betel chewing was widespread in tropical Asia, and it was considered impolite not to offer a guest a chew (and still is considered so today). A book published in Britain in 1779 on the purchasing of drugs and spices in Asia and the East Indies described chewing betel as “universal in India, as well as on the coast of China: it is produced at all entertainments and visits amongst the natives, and even to Europeans, some of whom, especially the Portuguese, have adopted the habit.”
One hundred years earlier, William Dampier, an intrepid English pirate who lived from 1651 to 1715 and was the first Englishman to travel to the Galapagos Islands, vividly described people chewing betel in the East Indies in his book A New Voyage Round the World. Like many people, he used betel and areca interchangeably. “The betel nut is cut in four pieces and wraped up (one each in an Arek leaf), which they spread with a soft paste made of lime or Plaifter and then chew it altogether,” he wrote. “Every man in these parts carries his lime box by his side, dipping his finger into it, spreads his Betel and Arek leaf with it. The Arek is a small tree or shrub of a green bark and the leaf is long and broader than a willow.… It is exceedingly juicy and makes much spit.… tastes rough in the mouth and dies the lips red, and makes the teeth black, but it preserves them and cleans the gums.… It is also accounted very wholesome for the stomach, but sometimes causes great giddiness in the head of those that aren’t used to chewing it.”
A Frenchman traveling in Java in the seventeenth century described how “everyone knows what the Betel-Leaves and Arequa Nuts are, which all the Natives of this island both Men, Women, and Children chaw incessantly to fortifie their Gums and Stomach, for sometimes they swallow the Juice. This Juice is as red as Blood … when you are not accustom’d to this Drug you find its Taste insupportably sharp, but otherwise it becomes like Tobacoo, and you find it difficult to leave it.”
In the eighteenth century, a Dutch sea captain noted that when ladies go out in Jakarta, they are invariably attended by four or more female slaves, one of whom bears the betel-box. The chewing of betel and areca nuts, which was called pinang, was a common pastime, even an “infatuation,” among the ladies. The pinang was often combined with Java tobacco. The chewing, noted the sea captain, “makes their spittle of a crimson colour, and when they have done it long, they get a black border along their lips, their teeth become black and their mouths are very disagreeable, though it is pretended that this use purifies the mouth, and preserves from the toothache.”
And in the nineteenth century, an American seaman in Sumatra noticed that men “wagged” their jaws over betel, the pungent leaf, “longer than the most inveterate tobacco chewer over his plug.”
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Other plants masquerade as pepper, but do not belong to the musical Pipers, the only true peppers of the world. Melegueta pepper, for instance, is a pretender belonging botanically to an entirely different plant genus called Afromomum. Melegueta is native to West Africa, and it was an important spice in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, until black pepper became more widely available with the opening of the ocean route to Asia at the end of the fifteenth century. Melegueta was known by the melodic name grains of paradise, a reflection of the medieval preoccupation with the Garden of Eden that so heavily influenced Europeans’ yearning for the East and its spices. The Portuguese considered the African pepper inferior to black pepper, one of the reasons for its decline in popularity. However, melegueta was favored as a spice by the English until the nineteenth century, and it is still used in West African cookery today. It also is a flavoring in akvavit, the liqueur popular among Scandinavians. Grains of paradise look like small black peppercorns and have a strong peppery sweetness.
The pepper genus Piper bears no relationship to another famously misnamed plant, chili pepper, which was originally found in the Western Hemisphere. Chilis belong to the genus Capsicum and are an essential ingredient in many tempting dishes all over the world. Chilis were exported from the New World to the Old World. These hot peppers, along with vanilla and allspice, are the only spices native to the tropics of the New World, a comparatively barren part of the spice landscape. Vanilla comes from the flower of a South American orchid.
Christopher Columbus was eager to find pepper in the New World, and the natives of the Caribbean told him the berries grew wild on the islands. It turned out the island berries were allspice, not true pepper. But Columbus didn’t have a naturalist with him, and he blithely accepted their word that he had found pepper. Allspice berries look like large peppercorns and are the fruit of an evergreen tree, not of a plant. Nevertheless, allspice became known as pimento, a derivation of pimiento, the Spanish word for pepper. Perhaps Columbus was aware of his ignorance, but he was a shrewd man. He had been sent to find spices and other treasures, and he didn’t want to disappoint his patrons, the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. He readily acknowledged that he could not identify the astounding variety of trees and plants he encountered on the islands, which he thought were part of Asia. “I do not recognize them, for which I feel the greatest sorrow in the world,” Columbus wrote in the log of his first voyage. Afterward, one of Columbus’s letters was circulated widely in Europe. In it he gushed over the islands’ limitless fertility and the vast amount of spice that could be obtained. He wrote to his patrons that they could acquire “as much as they order to be shipped.”
Obviously, Columbus wanted to promote his discoveries to his patrons, who he hoped would finance more voyages. In reality, the West offers few appetizing spices, while the East presents a smorgasbord. The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines spice as “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavour food, e.g. pepper.” The Asian tropics, where you will find pepper, also nurtures other such notable spices as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, and nutmeg. Cinnamon is a native of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon); ginger and turmeric originate in Southeast Asia; nutmeg (and mace), the two-in-one spice—mace is the bright red, lacy membrane surrounding the nutmeg seed—is from the Banda Islands; the clove is from the Moluccas (modern-day Maluku Islands); pepper and cardamom are from India. Spices are derived mainly from the bark (cinnamon), root (ginger and turmeric), fruit (nutmeg and cardamom), or berry (pepper) of trees or plants, while herbs, which are mostly found in the temperate zones of the world, tend to be from stems or leaves.
If the New World had hosted the variety of spices found in India and Southeast Asia, the history of the world might have taken a different course.
Copyright © 2013 by Marjorie Shaffer