Black Pepper and Relatives

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Black pepper was one of the first spices to be traded westward from Asia, and today it remains the preeminent spice in Europe and North America. We think of it as a basic seasoning, like salt, and use its moderate pungency and pleasant aroma to fill out the flavor of many savory dishes, often just before eating them. Pepper is native to the tropical coastal mountains of southwest India, where sea and overland trade with the ancient world began at least 3,500 years ago. It is mentioned in Egyptian papyruses, was well known to the Greeks, and a popular spice in Rome. During this time it was largely gathered from wild forest plants, though sometime before the 7th century the vine was transplanted to the Malay archipelago, Java, and Sumatra. Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route from Europe to southwest India in 1498, and the Portuguese subsequently controlled exports of black pepper for several decades. They were followed by the Dutch and, beginning around 1635, the British, who established pepper plantations. In the 20th century, a number of countries in South America and Africa began producing black pepper. Today India, Indonesia, and Brazil are the major world sources.