Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spiceand seasoning. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is approximately 5 millimetres (0.20 in) in diameter, dark red when fully mature, and, like all drupes, contains a single seed. Peppercorns, and the ground pepper derived from them, may be described simply as pepper, or more precisely as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit) and white pepper (ripe fruit seeds).
Black pepper is native to south India, and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. Currently Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world's Piper nigrum crop as of 2008. Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity for both its flavour and as a traditional medicine. Black pepper is the world's most traded spice. It is one of the most common spices added to European cuisine and its descendants. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine, not to be confused with the capsaicin that gives fleshy peppers theirs. It is ubiquitous in the modern world as a seasoning and is often paired with salt.
Black pepper is produced from the still-green, unripe drupes of the pepper plant. The drupes are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The drupes are dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn. On some estates, the berries are separated from the stem by hand and then sun-dried without the boiling process.
Once the peppercorns are dried, pepper spirit and oil can be extracted from the berries by crushing them. Pepper spirit is used in many medicinal and beauty products. Pepper oil is also used as an ayurvedic massage oil and used in certain beauty and herbal treatments.
White pepper consists of the seed of the pepper plant alone, with the darker-coloured skin of the pepper fruit removed. This is usually accomplished by a process known as retting, where fully ripe red pepper berries are soaked in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the pepper softens and decomposes. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. Sometimes alternative processes are used for removing the outer pepper from the seed, including removing the outer layer through mechanical, chemical or biological methods.
Ground white pepper is often used in cream sauces, Chinese and Thai cuisine, and dishes like salad, light-coloured sauces and mashed potatoes, where black pepper would visibly stand out. White pepper has a slightly different flavour from black pepper, due to the lack of certain compounds present in the outer fruit layer of the drupe, but not found in the seed. A slightly sweet version of white pepper from India is sometimes called safed golmirch (Hindi), shada golmorich (Bengali), or safed golmirch (Punjabi).
Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe drupes. Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green color, such as treatment with sulphur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying. Pickled peppercorns, also green, are unripe drupes preserved in brine or vinegar. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper drupes, largely unknown in the West, are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine. Their flavor has been described as spicy and fresh, with a bright aroma. They decay quickly if not dried or preserved.
Wild pepper grows in the Western Ghats region of India. Into the 19th century, the forests contained expansive wild pepper vines, as recorded by the Scottish physician Francis Buchanan (also a botanist and geographer) in his book A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar (Volume III). However, deforestation resulted in wild pepper growing in more limited forest patches from Goa to Kerala, with the wild source gradually decreasing as the quality and yield of the cultivated variety improved. No successful grafting of commercial pepper on wild pepper has been achieved to date.
Orange pepper and red pepper:
Orange pepper or red pepper usually consists of ripe red pepper drupes preserved in brine and vinegar. Ripe red peppercorns can also be dried using the same color-preserving techniques used to produce green pepper.
Pink pepper and other plants used as pepper:
Pink pepper from Piper nigrum is distinct from the more-common dried "pink peppercorns", which are actually the fruits of a plant from a different family, the Peruvian pepper tree, Schinus molle, or its relative the Brazilian pepper tree, Schinus terebinthifolius. A pink peppercorn (French: baie rose, "pink berry") is a dried berry of the shrub Schinus molle, commonly known as the Peruvian peppertree. As they are members of the cashew family, they may cause allergic reactions including anaphylaxis for persons with a tree nut allergy.
The bark of Drimys winteri ("Canelo" or "winter's Bark") is used as a substitute for pepper in cold and temperate regions of Chile and Argentina where it is easily available.
In New Zealand the seeds of Kawakawa, a relative of black pepper, are sometimes used as pepper and the leaves of Pseudowintera colorant are another replacement for pepper.
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