Pepper is found on many tables, as much in restaurants as in the home. It’s the counterpart to salt, but it is so much more than that simple grey powder that can make you sneeze. Pepper, as well as pepper berries, are considerably more complex than we think, and offer flavours from woody to fruity to very hot. Black pepper is, without a doubt, la grande vedette. Originally from India’s Malabar coast, it was long at the heart the spice exchange and was once considered a great luxury. Today, a number of myths surround this little berry and all its cousins. In our shop at the Jean-Talon Market, we get all manner of questions about pepper, though all everyone really wants is one thing: a good pepper.
Myth #1: High quality pepper is not important, since the purpose of pepper is to add heat to the dish
It’s true that pepper gives heat, which comes from the chemical piperine . That being said, heat can vary depending on when pepper is picked. Certain pepper varietals, like Tellichery EB and Madagascar, have a lasting fruity flavour. Tribal pepper, however, is sharp and hot. Then there is Tribal Green Pepper, which is grown in the same area, but is the product of an earlier harvest and not as hot. Time of harvest, then, and terroir, are going to have a profound impact on your search for a good pepper.
Myth #2: Pink “Pepper”
Fact is, pink pepper is not pepper. It is a pepper berry that originated in South America. It does contain some piperine, which makes it similar to real pepper in terms of taste but not flavour. It is often used mistakenly in pepper blends- while it adds colour, its resiny flesh can easily gunk up pepper grinders. That’s why there are no pink peppercorns in our 8 Pepper blend.
There are other types of pepper-like pepper berries around the world. Among the most well known is the numbing Sichuan peppercorn, along with its cousins Andaliman and Mah Kwan. Their flavours range from lightly numbing to fruity and citrus.
Myth #3: Pepper is not used for dessert
The same heat that is so desired for adding interest to some mashed potatoes or spice to a piece of chicken can elevate the most surprising of sweet foods as well. A dash of ground pepper on strawberries or slices of mango can enhance the sweetness and add an unexpected twist. Chocolate, too, can benefit from a burst of heat. The proof is in our 8 Pepper Chocolate Maniac cake. Pepper is even a key ingredient in our Chai spice, which found its way into our Chai butter cookies.
Myth #4: Cayenne “Pepper”
Cayenne is often treated in the same way as pepper- to add heat- but it is in fact a chili pepper. Through this narrow usage, is it closely associated with black pepper to the point that its name in French uses the word for pepper and not chili (poivre instead of piment). Its English name is a derivation of the chili’s origin, Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. The name Cayenne Pepper traveled through English back to French in a rare double-translated misnomer. The bizarre migration of this lexical and culinary anomaly across continents has contributed to its assignment as a simple pepper in both English and French cuisine.
Myth #5: Nothing can replace salt and pepper on the table
Actually, pepper is not the only spice that you can add after cooking. Certain chili flakes, like Aleppo Pepper or Maras, can be used as finishing spices for any dish. Garam Masala, a traditional aromatic Indian blend, is often used at the end of cooking dishes like curry or butter chicken to enhance the flavour- the same way anyone would add pepper. In Turkish cuisine, cassia is often used to add heat in dishes like pilaf. Cassia contains a volatile oil that is hot, making it an aromatic substitute for pepper.
Fact is, like with any spice, you should have fun with your pepper! I’d suggest starting with something simple, like lemonade. Just make a simple syrup by bringing equal parts sugar and water to a boil (in whatever amount of lemonade you want to make) with a tablespoon of Sichuan pepper. Leave it covered, overnight, and strain out the peppercorns. Feel free to add some other fruits or seasonings as well. Mix it with two cups of lemon juice and some water to taste and, voila, a good, peppery lemonade!