As I sat down for my daily breakfast of eggs and toast yesterday, I automatically reached for the salt and pepper – as most of us do before we eat. Seasoning our food is a gesture so automatic that I doubt any of us thinks about why we do it.
Whether it’s salt and pepper, Japan’s soy sauce, Malaysia’s Maggi, Vietnam’s chilli oil, or even America’s tomato ketchup, every food culture has its own peculiar variety of table seasonings, the flavour enhancers that are automatically reached for when laying the table.
The salt and pepper combination found in Europe and in America is so ubiquitous, so part of our culinary everyday, that any meaning behind it has been lost. Of course we all know why we use salt: it makes most foods taste better, without intrinsically changing their actual flavour. But pepper? Why pepper? It doesn’t enhance flavour or add that lovely rich umami mouth feel in the way that, say, ketchup or soy sauce does.
The habitual table use of pepper, the fruit of the black pepper plant from the Piperaceae family and the world’s most traded spice, at a whopping one fifth of the entire global spice market, comes partly as a cultural hangover from the highly spiced food we consumed until the 19th century, when our palates started to prefer the now more widely available sugar to spice, and partly from the belief that, in a pre-antibiotic world, it could cure all manner of medical problems, from heart disease to hernia, and alleviate all manner of ills, from constipation to insect bites. Although in truth, in the very little quantity it is consumed, pepper could only ever have a placebo effect.
In the same way that we don’t use enough pepper to really harness any putative health benefits, we don’t use enough pepper on our food to really engage with its delicious elusive flavour – a quick grind of the mill will only add a gentle heat to our food. But it’s when you add ground peppercorns in quantity as the main spice of a dish that things become not just hot, but interesting, in a recipe.
My favourite way to use black pepper is in a Mauritian-inspired recipe for vegetable fried rice, where a full teaspoon of freshly ground pepper is used as the main flavour component. (Using a pestle and mortar to crack the peppercorns gives the dish texture, too.) Not only does it pack the required heat, but the almost citrusy, woody flavours present in the black peppercorns’ outer layer really start to come to the fore.
Don’t be tempted to substitute white peppercorns in a recipe that makes black ones the star of the dish – they are basically black peppercorns minus their outer layer, so they lack those lovely complex flavours; only use them when you don’t want black flecks in a recipe, such as a blanquette.
Like all spices, peppercorns are best ground or cracked as you need them, partly to stop the volatile oils they contain evaporating into the air – on all accounts avoid pre-ground black pepper. Beyond the first few days of opening the package, you may as well sprinkle dust on your food. (Pepper also degrades in sunlight, so don’t fill clear pepper mills to the brim – add new peppercorns once a week.)
And my favourite pepper fact? Its use is so old that my favourite fact – thank you, Wiki – is that black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II as part of the mummification ritual. Don’t try this at home.
Three excellent pepper mills:
The world’s first pepper mill (1874), and arguably the world’s best, is fully adjustable, so you can adjust the grind over six settings, from fine to very coarse. (And yes, it is the same company as the cars.)
If you prefer your pepper cracked not ground, then this is the grinder for you. (It also features adjustable settings, like the Peugeot, but I prefer the lovely larger cracked pieces this delivers.) Plus it looks like a bunny, which is always a bonus in my book.
If you have arthritis or limited manual mobility, then electric pepper grinders are a godsend. They’re also useful if you need to grind pepper one-handed – granted, this may be a life hack too far.