SCINQ BASICS: Black pepper was so valuable a spice, it was called black gold.

Name: Piper nigrum.

Quote: “When those waiters ask me if I want some fresh ground pepper, I ask if they have any aged pepper.” – Andy Rooney

Descended from: The evolution of Piper nigrum, the plant that produces black pepper, is a complex and still somewhat uncertain topic. However, studies suggest that the plant has a long evolutionary history, with origins that can be traced back to the Late Cretaceous period, around 70 million years ago.

Piper nigrum belongs to the Piperaceae family, which includes over 3,600 species of flowering plants. The family is believed to have originated in South America, and its members are now found in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide.

One theory suggests that Piper nigrum evolved in India or Southeast Asia and then spread to other parts of the world through human migration and trade. The plant was highly valued in ancient times, and its cultivation and use were recorded in texts dating back thousands of years in India, China, and other regions.

Recent molecular studies have shed some light on the evolution of Piper nigrum. These studies suggest that the plant has undergone multiple speciation events, with different lineages evolving in different parts of the world. For example, one lineage is found in India and Southeast Asia, while another is found in Madagascar and surrounding regions.

Despite these advances, many questions about the evolution of Piper nigrum remain unanswered. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex evolutionary history of this important plant.

Domestication date: circa 2000 BC

Properties: The chemical that gives black pepper its distinctive taste is called piperine. Piperine is a naturally occurring alkaloid that is found in the fruit of the Piper nigrum plant, which is used to produce black pepper.

Piperine is responsible for the pungent, spicy flavor and aroma of black pepper. It acts on the taste buds and stimulates the sensory neurons, which triggers a sensation of heat and tingling in the mouth.

In addition to its taste and aroma, piperine has also been found to have some medicinal properties. It has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and may also help improve digestion and enhance nutrient absorption.

Overall, piperine is a key component of black pepper and is responsible for much of its unique taste and health benefits.

Health benefits: Black pepper has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments. While more research is needed to fully understand its health benefits, several studies suggest that black pepper may have some health-promoting properties. Here are some potential health benefits associated with black pepper

  • Improves Digestion – Black pepper has been shown to stimulate the production of digestive enzymes and improve digestion. It may also help relieve digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and constipation.
  • Enhances Nutrient Absorption – Piperine, the active compound in black pepper, has been found to enhance the absorption of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This may help improve overall nutrient status and support optimal health.
  • Has Antioxidant Properties – Black pepper contains several antioxidant compounds, including piperine and piperlongumine. These compounds may help protect against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
  • May Have Anti-Inflammatory Effects – Some studies have found that black pepper may have anti-inflammatory effects. This may be due to its ability to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body.
  • May Improve Brain Function – Piperine has been found to improve cognitive function and enhance memory in animal studies. It may also have antidepressant effects.
Piper nigrum Dried fruits with and without pericarp – Penja Cameroun (CREDIT: Didier Descouens)

Dishes of Note: Black pepper is a versatile spice that can be used in a wide variety of dishes to add flavor and aroma. Here are some examples of dishes that feature black pepper as a key ingredient

  • Steak au Poivre – This classic French dish features a steak that is coated in coarsely ground black pepper and then seared to create a crispy crust.
  • Pepper Chicken – This South Indian dish is made with chicken that is marinated in a mixture of black pepper, cumin, coriander, and other spices, then fried and cooked with onions, tomatoes, and more black pepper.
  • Pepper Rasam – This spicy soup from South India is made with a tamarind base and seasoned with black pepper, cumin, garlic, and other spices.
  • Chettinad Chicken Curry – This spicy curry from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is made with a blend of roasted spices, including black pepper, cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, and more.
  • Kali Mirch Ka Murgh – This North Indian chicken curry is made with a lot of black pepper, along with other spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
  • Pepper Rasam Rice – This South Indian rice dish is made with cooked rice that is flavored with a spicy pepper rasam, which includes black pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic, and tamarind.
  • Pepper Rasam Vada – This South Indian dish features crispy lentil fritters that are served with a spicy pepper rasam soup, which is seasoned with plenty of black pepper and other spices.
Black pepper crab, specialty of Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. (CREDIT: Midori)

History: Black pepper has a long and rich cultural history that spans thousands of years. It has been used in cooking, medicine, and trade in many different parts of the world.

In ancient times, black pepper was highly prized for its pungent flavor and aroma. It was used in cooking to add flavor and was also believed to have medicinal properties. In India, black pepper was considered to be a symbol of wealth and was often used as a form of currency.

During the Middle Ages, black pepper was one of the most valuable commodities traded between Asia and Europe. The demand for black pepper was so high that it was often referred to as “black gold” and was used to pay taxes and ransom payments.

Black pepper also played an important role in the Age of Exploration. European explorers were searching for a sea route to the spice-rich lands of Asia, and black pepper was one of the spices they were after. The search for black pepper was one of the main drivers of exploration and colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Today, black pepper is still widely used in cooking around the world. It is an essential ingredient in many spice blends, sauces, and marinades. It is also used in traditional medicine in many cultures, and is believed to have a variety of health benefits.

WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.


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