Black pepper is the world’s most-consumed spice — democratically stuffed in paper packets at fast-food chains and ground fresh from peppermills at white-tablecloth restaurants. Its bitterness, which travels up the nose and hits the back of the throat, not only seasons, it heals.
Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani medicinal traditions all use Piper nigrum, whose Latin name is derived from the Sanskrit word pippali. The spice has its origins in the southwest coast of India and found its way around the globe on the ancient Silk Road trading routes. In the Western Ghats region, many wild species still exist.
Black pepper is used alone or as part of a spice mixture in nearly every world cuisine, but it is particularly prevalent in South Asia. Black pepper-containing spice mixtures are used in wet or dry vegetable and lentil dishes, cooked in rice dishes, sprinkled freely in marinades for meat and fish, or fried in ghee (tarka) to extract the multiple volatile oils to season a meal. It is used widely in North Indian garam masala (hot mixture) recipes and numerous South Indian rasam podis (powders) that usually include a variety of ground and roasted spices and lentils, depending on the region.
So when is food medicine, or medicine food? For millenniums, the kitchen has doubled as the laboratory, where healers created formulations based on intimate knowledge of their ecological environments. A traditional formulation entered a canon — oral or written — after the healers foraged, grew, harvested, cooked, tasted, consulted and tested, repeatedly.
What gives black pepper, long pepper and ginger their kick? According to medical research, alkaloids piperine and piperidine are two of the dominant plant chemicals that give black pepper its punch, pungency, and spice. Other terpenes, such as pinene and limonene, impart the characteristic wood and citrus notes.
Black Pepper: Ripe green berries are picked and cooked briefly in hot water. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper. The berries are dried in the sun or mechanically for several days
White Pepper: Mature peppercorns are kept under running water for several days to soften their pericarp. After scrubbing to remove the pericarp, the white peppercorns are washed and dried.
Green Pepper: Immature green pepper berries that are fully developed are preserved in brine, vinegar or citric acid and may be dried or kept in the preservative.
In Ayurveda, an ancient healing system in South Asia, trikatu (three pungents) is a common formulation used to treat digestive disorders. Trikatu contains equal parts of black pepper, long pepper and ginger. Long pepper is a hotter version of black pepper and from the same family, Piperaceae. In the kitchen, long pepper is still used in South Asian and in North African cuisine, for instance, in the classic Ras al-Hanout (head of the shop) spice mixture.
Trikatu is prescribed to increase heat and minimize excess kapha — one of three humors treated in Ayurveda — and generally to increase appetite, minimize coughs and colds, improve breathing and heart problems, colic and diabetes; and to treat a range of digestive and stomach ailments. The ground powder may be ingested with honey, ghee, castor oil or another substance depending on the patient’s condition and the practitioner’s diagnosis.
Such ethnobotanical information on medicinal plants often aligns with medical research findings — especially when the research employs formulations equivalent to the traditional preparation. An article in the April issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food reports that a water extract of black pepper has potential immune-modulating and anti-tumor activities in vitro. Another recent study in last June’s issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that oil and oleoresin extracts of black pepper had strong antioxidant effects.
Another article from 2007 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition reviews black pepper and its “active” isolated pungent principle, piperine. Piperine, research showed, protects against oxidative damage in vitro, lowers lipid peroxidation in animal models, and enhances the bioavailability of a number of therapeutic drugs and plant chemicals. Like black pepper, piperine also possesses anti-tumor effects.
Whether you cook with whole black pepper, sprinkle it on your steaming meals, or eat it in a curry, black pepper is good medicine you can savor.
Bilqis’ Garam masala (Hot mix)
Add all ingredients to a spice grinder, grind and store in a glass bottle away from light. Best to make it in small amounts to preserve the taste and flavor of the spices.
Rasam podi (Rasam powder)
From Neelum Batra’s “1,000 Indian Recipes”
Known as pepper-water, rasam podi soups are potent sinus cleaners, and even “mild” rasams are meant to be hot, emphasizes Neelum Batra. You can decrease the chili and black peppers to suit your tastes, but don’t completely eliminate the black pepper because it is a core ingredient.
In a medium cast iron or nonstick wok or skillet, roast together all the ingredients, stirring and shaking the skillet over medium heat until fragrant and golden, about 3 minutes. Let cool, then rind in a spice or coffee grinder to make a powder. Store in airtight container in a cool, dark place. It will be fresh for one month at room temperature, or about one year in the refrigerator.
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.
Photo: Black pepper packets. Credit: Sarah Khan