One of the most common questions we encounter in customer service is the real meaning of white pepper vs black pepper. While we agree they come from the same peppercorn plant, how different whole peppercorns come to be is not as clear: especially for white varieties. Black peppercorns, like Tellicherry pepper or Malabar pepper, are perhaps the most popular fruits of all pepper plants, and white peppercorns remain a source of mystery for plenty of cooks. We know they are different, but how are they different?
Where Do Peppercorns Come from?
Begin at the beginning: the pepper plant, growing from India to Indonesia to Madagascar, into long pepper vines wrapped around trees, trellises, the sides of homes. The fruit of these vines ripens to a bright, fragrant red, and from there they are dried to either black peppercorns or the mysterious white pepper.
Black vs White Pepper
Black peppercorns are the dried fruit of the almost-mature pepper berry (in fact all pepper is from the same plant, piper nigrum). They are usually sundried, but can be oven dried, in a process that leaves the outer layer, the pericarp, oxidized and black (get ready for the word “pericarp” to show up a few times). So it’s just a dried berry. The drying process ignites a reaction that creates piperine, the active ingredient in pepper.
From there, differences in age, terroir and maturity can lead to wild variations in pepper flavor. Tellicherry pepper is from an ancient pepper terroir, known for producing full-bodied, robust and familiar flavors. The smaller tribal pepper is a semi-wild and harvested young, for a fast, clean, hot bite. Rajakumari, the Princess of Peppers, is harvested at full maturity, creating a large, aromatic peppercorn with an exceptional lingering burn. Malabar pepper is a regional blend, combining different peppercorns for a well-balanced flavor.
White pepper’s unique processing leaves it pure, raw and potent. It is traditionally placed in sacks and lowered into running water, causing the pericarp to decompose. Without the pericarp, white pepper loses many of aromatics, but concentrates a few flavors- notably piperine- leaving a hot, pure bite. This process is most popular in Indonesia, where many say the boldest white pepper comes from, although Vietnam produces a strong, grassy variety as well.
White Pepper Substitute?
In white pepper vs black pepper, white pepper doesn’t always win: its unique flavor is not preferred by some. The water decomposition of the pericarp sometimes leaves a grassy, fermented aroma that black pepper lovers are unused to. This leads some to search for for a white pepper substitute. White pepper is generally called for in specific circumstances, so finding a white pepper substitute that is not green or black is not easy.
Not all white peppercorns produce this flavor: it is often the result of poorly packed sacks, which do not remove the pericarp evenly. Indonesian white pepper produced with traditional water fermentation produces clean, hot peppers with earthy, not hay-like aromas. For those in search of a pure pipierine bite with no interfering flavors, white Voatsperifery from Madagascar is a worth discovering. The best white pepper substitute may just be a quality white pepper.
So where do peppercorns come from? Turns out the answer you give depends a lot on what you want from your pepper. You could say India, or Kerala, or even cite Tellicherry pepper or Malabar pepper to name some terroirs, and enjoy their different falvors. Or you could go in a different direction, wade into the black pepper vs white pepper world, and consider the many techniques that make a pepper berry into a whole peppercorn.
Our trip to Kashgar in Northwestern China, near the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, was the first that was deliberately ”not spice specific.” Our daughter Marika was living in The People’s Republic and, after completing a particularly arduous season in Montreal, we decided that rest, recreation —no spice hunting— and a strong dose of our much-missed offspring, had the making of a bona fide vacation.
References to Zinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region mentioned the blandness of the local Muslim food and made no allusion to spices whatsoever. Despite our ”no spice hunting” itinerary, we planned to explore the legendary Silk Route used by ancient merchant caravans to circumvent the Taklamakan desert on their way to oasis towns as Kashgar.
We kicked off our arrival in Kashgar by asking Nelli, the hotel receptionist, for directions to the local market. He obliged, making it clear that he was available, should we require an interpreter. The first market stall we encountered was dedicated to spices from all over Asia. Kashgar was a crossroad of the Middle East, India, China, Persia, Russia and even Greece —for art, jewellery, culture, fashion, and also for a large and impressive variety of spices.
Marika’s Mandarin, our finger-pointing and vigorous head-bobbing were all we relied on to convey our enthusiasm and gratitude to the Uighur vendor when we were shown… ”the spice blend.” What, we wondered, did the Uighurs do with their spice blend?
Try as we might, we couldn’t figure what this spice blend could possibly be used for in the region. And we certainly never imagined that we would one day be able to recreate the blend and add it to our collection – under it’s well deserved name – Silk Road Spice Blend.
Back at the hotel we asked Nelli about the Uighur spice blend. He said we should go to his house and ask his mother, an invitation we accepted with eagerness. We set off with him on the dusty, wind-swept, desert roads of Kashgar, and were soon in front of a very high, mud-brick wall with a little door cut into it. Upon entering, we found ourselves inside a spacious, oasis-like compound with four of five detached rooms constructed around a well and a fish pond, both covered by trellises through which mature vines were intertwined, weighed down by huge bunches of the famous grapes of Zinjiang.
We were warmly greeted by Nelli’s entire clan and were ushered into the largest room furnished with an oversized, low table around which brightly colored cushions and carpets were scattered. Bowls of fresh fruits, plates of sweet and, of course pots of hot tea were laid out before us as an electric, feast-like atmosphere brimming with Muslim hospitality enveloped our small gathering.
Philippe was summoned to the kitchen to observe our host’s mother and sister cook, and returned later with a recipe for hand-pulled noodles and another for lamb —both using ”the spice blend”. As is our custom, Philippe traded some of our own spice blends and attempted to communicate some cooking pointers of his own, which appeared to amuse and charm the ladies.
Marika and I were uncustomarily left to fraternize with ”the men folk” which we thoroughly enjoyed. Poor Nelli, however, appeared embarrassed, judging from his tone and the expressions on the faces of the older men. It seemed that our family composition flummoxed them. They understood that the white man and the brown girl could be related. But the black ”man” (that would be short-haired, un-veiled me) gave birth to the brown girl? Later, Nelli told us that his elders acknowledged he was young and impressionable but, being more mature and worldly, they assured him they weren’t buying any of it.
Cabbage is markedly associated with traditional Quebec cuisine, never mind fall and winter food. It is adored the world over, not just because it’s available year round, but also because it’s cheap and versatile. Cabbage can mean anything from kale to Brussel sprouts or even bok choy, so it shows up in just about every cuisine in the world. It is, of course, an excellent base for all manner of spice dishes.
Stir-fried bok choy and mushrooms
Honey Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Kale Salad with Classic Fines herbes
Varsha’s Aloo Gobi
Cabbage and bacon salad
East Coast Spice Cole Slaw
Kale Salad with Pear and Walnuts
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Cabbage and Carrots Steamed with Panch Phoran
Cabbage Sautéed with with Cajun Spices
We met Sanath and Deepa… via fax! The memory of having made the acquaintance of this wonderful Sri Lankan couple using such old-school technology is amusing and nostalgic.
We knew that Mexicans are the biggest consumers of true cinnamon in the world. We also knew that the best terroir—or growing conditions for the grade we wanted in our spice shop—is the southwestern coast of the island country of Sri Lanka. Having never been to Sri Lanka, however, and as we didn’t know anyone who lived there, we decided to get our cinnamon from Mexico where we had loyal and ”resourceful” friends who were soon sending us gunny sacks of 4-foot Sri Lankan cinnamon quills, by mail.
It was a relief whenever our cinnamon arrived from Mexico. The arrangement we had with our ”supplier” (a friend’s brother and sometimes travel agent whose real calling was living ”the good life”) was not suitable for us. Our goal was to establish a supply chain headed by someone reliable. We were anxious to introduce real cinnamon to our clients, many of whom had been led to believe that the cassia bark they consumed, which has only one of the four volatile oils found in true cinnamon, was the real deal (more on cinnamon vs. cassia in this video). Continue reading →
Black pepper is everywhere, but doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. India, right? Why are we so concerned with where some food comes from but not others? Black peppercorns adorn dinner tables around the world, yet their origins, their terroirs, are rarely discussed. This may be why there are so many myths about black peppercorns. A quick response to the question, “where does black pepper come from,” will highlight just how important this question is. And where better to start than with the two most famous pepper varietals: Malabar Pepper and Tellicherry Pepper.
Where do Peppercorns Come from?
Black peppercorn varietals are particularly place-based: their most distinguishing features tend to derive from where they are grown and processed. The pepper vine in general, piper nigrum, originated in the hills around Kerala, in southwestern India, where is has been dried into black, white, and green pepper for millennia. Learn more about the process here. Continue reading →
It’s true that brunch is enjoyed all year, but the Holidays make a great occasion to brunch at home with the whole family under one roof. It’s also a great chance to make a meal for that cousin you didn’t get a chance to see or a friend who was on vacation. If you really want to succeed, we suggest a combination of sweet and savory dishes, most of which can be prepared the day before. The less-experienced diners will probably throw themselves into the sausages and eggs en cocotte, while the old adepts are more likely to enjoy their holiday with the delicious orange and melon salad, or, better still, with another cup of cardamom coffee!
The best parties are usually linked to the kitchen in some way. If you want to enjoy your gathering as much as your guests, standing around the table, lined up at the kitchen island, or huddled around the oven, it pays to have a course of canapés and hors d’oeuvres to share. With a little organization, you can have everything ready ahead of time, or at least minimize the last-minute work you have to do when your guests arrive. Ideally, you’d serve both hot and cold dishes, and even play around with textures and colors! Don’t neglect cocktails, while still keeping those who don’t drink alcohol in mind. For a stress-free evening, ask your guests to serve a morsel or two and let them serve (and re-serve!) themselves.