These days, certain spices have become so ubiquitous on our tables that we hardly think of them as spices… Black pepper is the obvious example here, but I would also include chili peppers in the form of sauces and pastes. Just think of the salt and pepper shakers on almost every table and the chili-based condiments that are everywhere. Also, look at any recipe on the web and if they are for a savory dish, I guarantee that over 90% will have ‘season with salt and pepper’ somewhere in the cooking instructions.

Today, black pepper is cheap and plentiful, and it’s hard for us to even consider a time when pepper was an incredibly rare and expensive commodity. However, until very recently (and even during World War II in Europe) black pepper was expensive and rare. It was only produced in India and reached Europe by strange and mysterious means.

The first recorded use of black pepper in Europe and North Africa was in the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses II, who had two peppercorns stuck in his nostrils when he was mummified (and that was 4,000 years ago). But the first western peoples to use black pepper extensively were the Greeks and they introduced the love for this spice to the Romans. As a result, the Romans were the first Europeans to travel to India in search of this magical substance (of course, Indian merchants had gone the other way for centuries!).

In many ways, black pepper is the perfect spice, as it has the ‘hot’ and ‘pungent’ that elevate the flavors of a dish, but doesn’t add any hint of bitterness. Thus, it gives each and every food a ‘punch’ in terms of flavor without making it unpleasant (which is why the Romans even put pepper in their desserts!).

But what really is a spice? In terms of a modern definition, a spice is generally obtained from the dried fruiting body of a plant. Thus, it can be the whole fruit (as in cubeb pepper or allspice berries or cumin) or it is the kernel or seed of the fruit (as in nutmeg and fenugreek seeds or nigella seeds). ). In contrast, herbs are the vegetative parts of a plant (the stems and leaves) and include lemongrass (stems), thyme (leaves), oregano (leaves). Spices are also obtained from the roots, rhizomes, or tubers of plants. Therefore, ginger (and its relatives, galangal, zedoary, etc.) are spices, as is the medieval spice, galingale (the root of a sedge, a grass-like plant).

Human beings are strange among animals in that we like heat in our food and many, many spices that we use or have used tend to have this note in their flavor. This, in turn, has led us as a species to use a whole range of spices in our cooking and many of these spices in some way echo the distinctive nature of black pepper.

This is why chili, when introduced to Europe from the Americas, was called ‘hot pepper’ (to associate it with black pepper). In fact, the vast majority of spices impart ‘heat’ to a dish and only a few are used solely for their flavoring properties. Chili is widely used because it imparts pure ‘heat’ to a dish but does not have the pungency of black pepper and that is why chili, although widely used today, has not yet displaced black pepper as the King of Spices.

Most of our common and not so common spices have a heat and pungency that mimics black pepper in one way or another. But all of them also impart a bitterness to foods that give flavor. Good examples are cubeb pepper (common in the Middle Ages) and Senegal pepper (which was used as a substitute for black pepper during World War II). They add heat and pungency to dishes, but if used in excess they also impart an unpleasant bitterness and that is why they have never really rivaled black pepper as a food flavouring.

In our yearning to add that extra “pep” to our food, we humans have traveled to all corners of the world and tried and added some very strange things to our dishes (the beloved Sichuan pepper of Chinese cuisine is a relative! of the orange!) . But nothing has rivaled the pre-eminence of black pepper in the kitchen. The only spice that comes close is chili.

This means that our love of black pepper has displaced many local spices that we used to use in the past and it also means that we are ignoring many taste sensations that could be useful in our kitchen. Perhaps it is time to rediscover some of these lost spices from around the world and recover some of our lost culinary heritage.


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