Spotlight on Spice: The Pepper Plant

black pepper spice on the vine before and after ripening

Black pepper is made from green pepper that was harvested before it turned to red pepper and made into white pepper.

Don’t worry, my head’s spinning around that colorful fact too, so let’s start from the beginning.

When I say ‘Pepper’, I’m referring to the black pepper spice next to the salt on your kitchen table.  Not to be confused with chili pepper, which isn’t a pepper at all.  A mistake we can thank Columbus for when he thought he arrived in India, and assumed that the spicy chili he bit into was related to black pepper.

But we shouldn’t fault Columbus for the misnomer.  Even now, most of us have no idea about the source of the most common spice in our kitchen.  What is a pepper plant?  What is a peppercorn?  What do they look like?

For the answers, we journey on the New Spice Route to the state of Karnataka in South India.  Through Chinmayie’s blog – Love Food Eat – where she shares images of the spice Columbus was searching for centuries ago.

black pepper vine growing on coconut palm tree in southern india

On Chinmayie’s family farm in Karnataka, the pepper plants – a flowering vine – climb their way up coconut trees.  “We grow black pepper in our farm, and though it’s not extensively used in our cooking, it’s a staple in most Indian kitchens.  It’s used more as a medicine in our family.  Black peppers are roasted, crushed and added to soups and curries whenever somebody catches a cold.  It’s also boiled with jaggery into a syrup to produce the best cough syrup.”

close up of green pepper drupes fruit on vine

The pepper vine produces small drupes – a fleshy fruit with a thin skin that wraps around a single, hard seed.  Along the vine, each stem will produce a string of around 20-30 drupes, which many of us would probably assume were tiny grapes by their appearance, but would have quite the surprise biting into one.

The unripened drupes are green and spicy, and are harvested at this stage in order to make either green or black peppercorns.  For the familiar black peppercorn – the spicier of the two – the green drupes are boiled and then dried, which causes the outer skin to shrivel and turn black.  For the less common green peppercorn, the green drupes are immediately treated by canning or freeze drying to retain their color and fresher taste.

Or, as Chinmayie shares on Love Food Eat, the green drupes can be preserved into what she describes as a “Tangy, Spicy & Fragrant South Indian Pickle”.

pickled black pepper spices

If the green drupes are not harvested, the fruit will ripen to a dark, red color.  While these red drupes can be freeze dried into red peppercorns* (a milder, sweeter peppercorn that actually has a yellowish-red tint), it is much more common for them to be processed into white peppercorns – a popular spice used in Asian cuisine.

To produce white peppercorns, the red pepper drupes are soaked in water for up to two weeks, until they ferment, and the skin and fruit decomposes, leaving only the hard, white seed.  Because of this fermentation process, and because of the ripening process**, the white peppercorns have a sharper taste and more pungent aroma than the spicier, more flavorful black peppercorns.  So even though the white parts of ground black pepper are from the same seed that makes up white pepper, they differ in both flavor and aroma.

harvested green pepper fruits to make into black peppercorn spice

Green peppercorns, black peppercorns, red peppercorns, white peppercorns – different colors, different flavors, different aromas, but all the same fruit on The Pepper Plant.

Thank you Chinmayie for sharing your wonderful images of where our pepper comes from!

indian pepper vine with green pepper spice growing

* Not to be confused with pink peppercorns, which are actually from an entirely different plant.
** The sometimes repulsive aroma of white pepper can be caused by two factors.  First, stagnant water during the fermenting process can result in the formation of various odors.  And second, ripe pepper seeds tend to have a stronger concentration of a compound called Rotundone, which can give white peppercorns a more peppery aroma than black peppercorns.  But if the rotundone levels are too high, white pepper can have a burned, bitter smell.