O, for a sprinkling of black pepper!

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on September 17, 2020

Black magic: Food historian KT Achaya wrote that all 50 dishes cooked in Akbar’s court featured pepper   -  ISTOCK.COM

The spice that banishes blandness and stodginess from food once launched a thousand ships and territory battles

* Archaeological clues indicate that by 2000 BC black pepper was used across India; and by 1200 BC, it was being traded to Egypt

* In Ancient Rome, pepper became a status symbol and wealthy denizens used inordinate amounts in their desserts

* It was largely a desire for the Indian Black Gold that spurred adventurers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama to seek a sea-route to India

When I’m shopping for saris, I reach for the whites. When I’m browsing in a bookstore, I head for the murder mysteries. And when I’m pondering over a restaurant menu, I point at the pepper.

There’s no two ways about it. I’m a pepper fiend, the kind of person who bookmarks every single recipe with pepper in its name — peppercorn-crusted fish, Andhra pepper chicken, tofu in pepper sauce, pepper ice cream. I am a cook who tosses fistfuls of the black powder into recipes that have misguidedly omitted it in their ingredient list. I am also the one who is so afraid of being caught without the spice that she pops a box of pepper into the cart almost every time she does groceries.

For although pepper is often viewed as the not-so-versatile sibling of salt, it possesses an earthy, aromatic kick that brightens the dullest of dishes. It can save the basic boiled egg from blandness and the mushiest potato from stodginess. It is the mainstay of fiery rasams, zingy seafood stir-fries and three-ingredient pastas. In the hands of bolder, better cooks, it metamorphoses into toppings for ice creams and stir-ins for chocolate cakes. And, somehow, it has found a place in kitchens across continents.

Little wonder, then, that this unprepossessing fruit from the Malabar region was one of the biggest power-players of the ancient and medieval world. And the black powder is the superstar of a remarkable saga that began at least 4,000 years ago in southern India.

Food historians believe that pepper is native to Kerala, where the flowering vine has been cultivated for millennia. Archaeological clues indicate that by 2000 BC the spice was used across India; and by 1200 BC, it was being traded to Egypt. Whether the Egyptians used it in their cuisine is not known, but they certainly used it in their mummification rituals, which is how pepper found its way into the nostrils of entombed bodies of pharaohs.

Pepper was one of the first commodities to be traded in a world that was just discovering the magic of spices. By 1000 BC, mountains of tiny peppercorns were making the journey from Kerala to West Asia. Traders from Arabia controlled this lucrative business and History.com recounts that they were so determined to guard their turf that they concocted “fantastical stories” about the dragons that protected the pepper plants of Malabar.

These tall tales only added to the allure and price of the spice. In Ancient Rome, pepper became a status symbol and wealthy denizens used inordinate amounts in their desserts, even stirring two full tablespoons into a dish involving four eggs. In order to fulfil this demand, Roman ships were constantly heading to the ports of the Malabar coast, including the lost, fabled port of Muziris.

Not everybody approved of this to-and-fro, of course. “It is remarkable that the use of pepper has come so much into favour, as in the case of some commodities their sweet taste has been an attraction, and in others their appearance, but pepper has nothing to recommend it in either fruit or berry,” Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History (AD 77).

Nevertheless, the pepper-mania continued to grow. So much so that when the Huns besieged Rome in 410 AD, their demands included 3,000 pounds of black pepper.

The fall of the Roman Empire caused upheavals in the pepper trade. A cartel of West Asian and Venetian merchants — dubbed “The Muslim Wall” — seized control. But even their exorbitant prices did not quell the appetite of aristocratic Europeans. The French sometimes paid their rent in peppercorns. And it was largely a desire for the Indian Black Gold that spurred adventurers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama to seek a sea-route to India.

Vasco da Gama succeeded. Then the Portuguese king stepped in and employed guns and brutality to control the hitherto peaceful business. Soon the Portuguese were trading over 2 million pounds of pepper a year — a full 70 per cent of the world’s spice trade.

Meanwhile, in India, pepper remained a vital ingredient. Food historian KT Achaya wrote In the Story of Our Food (2003) that every single one of the 50 dishes that were cooked in Akbar’s court and listed in the Ain-i-Akbari featured pepper.

That, though, was about to change.

Around the time that Vasco da Gama succeeded in reaching India and getting access to the real deal, Columbus stumbled upon the wrong land as well as the wrong spice: The chillies that were native to South America. These spice-bombs arrived in India at the end of the 16th century. It seems to have been love at first bite, and home-grown pepper found itself facing stiff competition from the hot outsider.

Despite this, pepper remains the most popular spice in the world. And every time I salvage an insipid fish curry or a boring cheese bake with a generous sprinkle, I’m grateful that I live in an age when a bottle of the pepper costs ₹170. And not the price of a pair of gold earrings. Or a French serf’s freedom.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Also read: Black magic


Cacio e pepe



  • 200g pasta
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan
  • Salt to taste


  • Cook the pasta in water that is generously seasoned with salt. When done, drain and keep aside one cup pasta water.
  • Melt 2 tbsp butter in a big pan. Add the pepper and cook for about a minute till it is roasted. Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to pan and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add cheese, stirring and tossing until melted. Add more pasta water if the sauce seems dry. Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.

Published on September 16, 2020

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