Understanding the flavour of pepper

A new podcast series is helping to show there’s a lot more to pepper than first meets the eye. Its host, Anna Sulan Masing, shares the complexities of the household spice and explains the makings of its flavour

Words by Anna Sulan Masing

man holding dried and fresh peppercorns

Pepper is ubiquitous to the UK dinner table, and as a result, is often overlooked. But it’s a spice with a deep history and complex flavours. Pepper is entwined in many personal memories and features in a multitude of cultures, so it’s worth taking the time to understand this ingredient as a plant and a flavour. Unravelling the story of pepper and re-learning its place at our table helps us to understand it, and allows us to use it with purpose. 

Spices have long been a part of the history of the UK and Europe, even if not grown here, but pepper is a particularly interesting commodity. It was a favourite of the Romans, led to the launch of the Guild of Pepperers in London in the 1100s, and is still the most traded spice in the world. It can also be argued pepper ignited a shift in the way Europe looked to other lands as places to extract goods for consumers at home. In 1498, the Portuguese found a sea route that reached to Kerala, where pepper is grown, therefore circumventing the trade routes across land and through Venice. The race was on for other European countries to follow suit and cut out the middlemen. The first voyage of the East India Company returned to England in 1603 laden with peppercorns, and this business venture began centuries of colonialism with capitalism and brutality at its heart.

drawing of East India Company ships
The first fleet of the East India Company leaving Woolwich in 1601. It returned in 1603 laden with peppercorns

In the Middle Ages, pepper existed with a medicinal purpose, as Dr Paul Freedman, a scholar of Medieval foods, explains. ‘The medical teachings of the time emphasised balance of what were called the humours. So, pepper was hot and dry in the fourth degree. That’s as many degrees as there are.’ Spices began to fall out of fashion or moved into sweet dishes, but pepper stayed a permanent fixture, possibly because of its connection with health.

What is pepper?

Pepper is the evergreen plant piper nigrum, with vines that grow up along stakes. Believed to have originated from Kerala, India, it grows well in humid climates. Vietnam is leading the field in production, with Indonesia, Brazil and India among other key regions. 

There are a number of plants that get swept under the ‘pepper’ label, likely due to the way they create ‘heat’ through their molecules. But they’re entirely unrelated. For example, chillies are part of the capsicum family and are indigenous to Central and South America. Sichuan pepper, native to China and Taiwan, is part of the wider Rutaceae family, also known as a type of citrus. When eaten, it gives a numbing sensation called málà. And then there are pink peppercorns from the Andes, more closely related to cashew and mango than to the black peppercorn.

sichuan pepper berries drying
Sichuan peppercorn berries, which are part of the wider Rutaceae family (a type of citrus), drying after harvest

Black peppercorns are harvested just before or at ripening, depending on the region and the farmer’s preference, and then sun-dried until blackened. White pepper – which is often much more aromatic – is the result of a process that sees the outer layer of the peppercorn washed off. This is a longer process and is why white pepper is (and should be) more expensive. In Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the Borneo island, this is done by placing the berries in a soft bag in a river stream for a few days. 

Green peppercorns are unripe berries that are freeze-dried, canned, pickled or treated with sulphur dioxide to keep them green; these have a fresher flavour, with less heat. Red peppercorns are fully ripened berries, treated much the same way as green peppercorns, and are slightly sweet and juicy. 

Pepper plantation in Sarawak
A pepper plantation in Sarawak, Malaysia

What is pepper as a flavour?

Considering the length of time this spice has been in our lives, only recently have its flavour molecules been analysed. This is because it requires extremely sensitive technology. ‘Pepper has one of my favourite flavour molecules in it, that’s a sesquiterpene called Rotundone,’ says Dr Arielle Johnson, a flavour scientist. ‘It’s super-potent. It was discovered in Syrah wine, which often has black pepper notes. 

When thinking about the specific flavours of pepper, it is mainly scent that influences our understanding. Pepper generally hits our bitter taste receptors, but the aromas, which we get from both smelling through our nose and the back of our mouths, are much more numerous. 

The other element of pepper is this idea of ‘spice’ or heat. ‘Spicy is not a taste, it comes from our sense of touch. There are molecules, one of which is called piperine in the pepper, that stimulate our pain receptors,’ says Dr Johnson. ‘So we are physically experiencing pain when we’re eating something like pepper, or chillies or ginger.’

black pepper in a bowl
Although pepper has been in our lives for thousands of years, it's only recently that its flavour molecules have been analysed.

Beyond the heat of pepper

Digging down into what the different flavours of pepper are is where it gets fun, and a little messy. We all have different points of reference and experience taste in different ways. When it comes to pepper, it’s hard to pinpoint the terroir of flavour, as process is such a large part of what makes peppers unique. In this respect, it is more akin to coffee than wine. But if you taste peppers from different regions and farms, and made through different processes, side-by-side, you’ll very quickly see the differences between them.

Chef-owner Tom Heale, of Naïfs restaurant in Peckham, describes Sarawak pepper as ‘quite mild, the balance is between lots of different flavours; woody, slightly smoky notes, [with] quite a lot of acidity.’ Mandy Yin, chef-owner of Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar in Islington, says, ‘I would describe Sarawak pepper as being ultra-floral, smoky, woody.’

When thinking about the specific flavours of pepper, it is mainly scent that influences our understanding

Sana Javeri Kadri is the founder of spice company Diaspora Co. Her pepper is from one farm in Kerala, grown by the Parameswaran family. When first trying the pepper, Javeri Kadri got ‘jammy figs and nutmeg’. She explains: ‘Akash’s [Parameswaran] pepper was purple and dark red and a little bit grey on some; his pepper was the only one that [they sampled that] wasn’t flash-boiled after harvest. Akash was picking at peak ripeness and then he was sun-drying.’ 

For cook and writer Melissa Thompson, pepper means promise and flavour. ‘You can have something that’s quite ordinary and just give it a bit more nuance, or base a whole dish around pepper,’ she says. ‘I think it’s a beautiful spice I know relatively so little about. There’s a whole massive world that I’m still yet to discover.’

peppercorns growing on a plant
Unripe black peppercorns growing. Black pepper is harvested just before or at ripening, then sun-dried until blackened

Where to buy good pepper

The key to buying good spice is to look at the relationship between supplier or importer and farmer. The shorter the supply chain, the more likely the money is going directly to farmers, and the suppliers will know more about the spices they’re selling. 

  • Hill & Vale – This UK company specialises in single-farm spices and works directly with farmers to shorten the supply chain. Its black pepper is from Kerala.
  • Sara Spice / Nine Life – This seems incredibly expensive, but Nine Life is importing from a Sarawak-based supplier Sara Spice, who works directly with farmers and with the Malaysian Pepper Board so that quality and supply is assured. 
  • Natoora – Sarawak isn’t processed as ‘single farm’ and is often re-packaged by UK or European importers and suppliers with their branding. With other peppers this could be an issue, but because the majority of Sarawak pepper needs to be approved by the Malaysian Pepper Board before leaving the country, it is likely to be authentic, and therefore of the highest quality. Do use a trusted importer/supplier, such as Natoora though, as the premium reputation of Sarawak pepper may lead to some nefarious behaviour. 
  • Diaspora Co – As mentioned, a black pepper from Kerala. Diaspora Co also adds tasting notes to all its spices. It does single-farm sourcing and works directly with farms, agreeing prices far above the global standard. Although US-based, you can order them in the UK, and there is rumour they will also become more available in the UK.

Taste of Place is a 10-episode podcast, produced by Whetstone Radio Collective, that explores our relationship with the past and nostalgia through the story of pepper. It covers colonialism, contemporary trade routes, our understanding of taste and scent and how we build home and belonging through food.