If you love cooking with black pepper, you know that freshly ground peppercorns are far more superior to pre-ground pepper as all its flavours are still intact. The heat and flavour evaporate quickly once the peppercorn is cracked. Also, if stored properly, freshly ground pepper can last up to 3 years! All you need is a pepper mill or mortar and pestle, and you're all set to take the giant leap to grind your own pepper.
Pungent, earthy, hot, woody, citrusy — pepper's distinct flavour pairs well with just about any savoury food. That is why it is a tasty addition to any spice racks.
How does this universally beloved spice come about?
There are many different pepper varieties worldwide, but the word "pepper" applies chiefly to the dried fruit of Piper nigrum, cultivated to what we know as black pepper. It is a plant that thrives in hot and humid tropical climates. Similar to grapes, black peppercorns begin as green berries on the vine. They turn dark red once they ripen, and they are dried under the sun after being harvested. Handpicking is one of the most common methods of harvesting pepper.
There are several contributing factors to a peppercorn's flavour profile. This includes the soil used, cultivation method, drying technology, etc. For centuries, growers all around have worked towards perfecting their production process.
The harvested peppercorn bunch comes in various sizes and greyish – brownish colours. They are sifted and sorted into different grades. Higher-grade is usually larger and darker, stronger in flavour, and its colour uniformity could also indicate its flavour consistency.
#FunFact – Did you know that white peppercorns also start as young black peppercorns? What makes white pepper and black pepper different is in their production process. Instead of drying them out, white pepper is soaked in water until the outer black husks dissolve. That is why white peppercorns are smaller and less wrinkled than black peppercorns. They are more delicate, floral, yet pungent, making them the perfect ingredient for Chinese soups and stir-fry recipes.
Now that you have your peppercorn 101, you are ready to take the leap from pre-ground pepper to grinding your own, and we've got you covered with the world's most popular peppercorns.
SARAWAK PEPPER (MALAYSIA)
This world-famous Malaysia peppercorn is grown in Sarawak, north of Borneo. It's been featured in TasteAtlas (world atlas of food) - "6 Most Popular Peppercorns in the World" and is highly rated as a delicious all-rounder peppercorn.
This has much to do with the country's tropical climate, Sarawak's hilly slopes, and unique soil composition perfect for harvesting peppercorns. The Sarawak spice story dates back to the 7th Century and is Malaysia's biggest pepper producer.
Its rich and distinctive flavour is preserved through tried-and-tested traditional processing methods. Sarawak peppercorns are medium-sized; it features a bold woody-piney taste with a citrusy aroma. You can definitely count on the heat too!
It is one seasoning that you can put on almost everything. Use it to marinate your food or sprinkle it into your cooked dishes. Sarawak pepper makes an excellent accompaniment to grilled meat, stir-fried vegetables, soup, gravies, and even fish and tossed salads! It is also one of the main ingredients of the famous Sarawak Laksa! If your love for pepper runs deep, be sure to try Sarawak's renowned white pepper too!
Phú Quốc Pepper (Vietnam)
Another Southeast Asia country endowed with an abundant harvest of peppercorns is Vietnam, ranked No.1 in WorldAtlas – "World's Top Black Pepper Producing Countries" (as of writing). The world-leading black pepper exporter is especially renowned for their peppercorns from their largest island - Phú Quốc.
Due to the island's warm sunny climate with rainfall in due season and proximity to the ocean, Phú Quốc pepper is cultivated all over the island. They are well-known for their big seed, thin husk, pungency and heat!
Did you know that pepper changes colour and flavour as it matures? The Phú Quốc red variety is riped, and it packs a vibrant sweet yet citrusy heat. It is closely rival to Cambodia's Kampot Pepper, which lies just north of Phú Quốc, a few hours of ferry ride away.
This rare peppercorn with mighty peppery taste pairs well with many dishes, such as sauteed fish fillet, stir-fries, beefsteak, soups, and noodle soup. Grind away for an extra kick of flavours!
Kampot Pepper (Cambodia)
Next on the list, we have for you "The Champagne of Pepper" from the provinces of Kampot, southern Cambodia. Peppercorns have been cultivated in Cambodia since the 13th Century. The Kampot pepper is the first Cambodian product to obtain the Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) status.
With the province's micro-climate and developed techniques to ensure optimum soil drainage, Kampot pepper is known for its aroma and balanced pungency. The unripe green pepper has a citrusy flavour and is less bitter, while the dried berries (harvested when turning from green to yellow) have a more substantial floral flavour with a hint of eucalyptus. You can count on the burn to awaken the palates!
A local shared with BBC Travel: "When you try Kampot pepper, it's hot at first. Then it calms down, down, down – like flowers on the back of your tongue," he said, pointing into his mouth. "That's when you know you have the real one."
The Kampot pepper is relatively sweeter, less bold. Depending on its variety, black pepper is recommended for red meats, white pepper for fish or fruit salads; and the red ones can be used for desserts. Give each a try to taste the wonderful flavour it holds!
Tellicherry Pepper (India)
There's no shortage of places to get your black pepper from. Another prominent pepper growing region is India, and their world-famous peppercorn is called Tellicherry pepper.
All types of pepper are of the Piper Nigrum species, and whether they are of different colours or sizes, they still come from the same vine. Peppercorns are sifted through mesh screens according to size to sort them into different grades in the production process.
A Tellicherry peppercorn is determined by its size, which is larger than other regular peppercorns. As peppercorns grow larger, they lose some heat, but they get increased complex flavour with added citrus notes that are more fragrant. That is why Tellicherry is known for its sweet and balanced flavour.
Like Sarawak Pepper, they make excellent all-rounder pepper seasoning too. Tellicherry bold and punchy flavour works well as a stand-alone. You can use it as barbecue rubs on steaks and other meat dishes to get a sweet hint of peppery roughness or enhance the taste of soups and stews.
Tasmanian Pepper (Australia)
To describe the taste of pepper varieties, you go with some key characteristics such as the intensity level of its heat, sweetness and acidity level. Are they more fruity, citrusy, or are they leaning towards the earthy side of the flavour wheel? Some are milder, more delicate, some with bitter or lemony notes.
The next acclaimed pepper has more interesting, complex layers to it. It has a floral aroma with piney, woody notes and has a unique fruity resin-like flavour. They are known as Tasmanian pepper or Tasmanian Peppperberry, a pepper variety native to southeastern parts of Australia. It is the fruit of the Tasmania Lanceolata tree. The plant is quite attractive with its has red stem and blooming white flowers in the summer.
These Australian black berries give you a sweet taste initially followed by a delayed tongue-numbing peppery heat! Tasmanian pepper is often chopped and added to raw or cooked dishes such as foie gras and meat stews, marinades for gamey meat like the emu, kangaroo or lamb.
Cubeb Pepper (Indonesia)
Finally, we have the Cubeb Pepper from Indonesia, another top pepper-producing country. Native to Java, its appearance is similar to any other black pepper except it has a tapering end; hence, it is also known as tailed pepper. However, the Java black pepper contains very little piperidines, so they are not as spicey as your regular black pepper.
It is pungent and bitter, tinged with a hint of allspice and nutmeg. Cubeb pepper can be used whole, crushed, or added with other spices to create your homemade spice mix. Due to its exotic flavour, it has become a popular ingredient amongst gourmet restaurant chefs for tantalising tastes.
Apart from Indonesian cuisines such as gulai curries and mutton tagine, it pairs well with Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisines too!
Cubeb pepper draws on a long history as a medicinal plant. It is also interesting to note that it is used extensively as a flavouring agent for gins and cigarettes, particularly in the West!
If you'd like to find out more about the amazing health benefits of black pepper, check out "Little Known Health Benefits of Black Pepper According to Science".
It is hard to say that one pepper is better than the other as they each have their own distinct flavours, aromas and uses. Their qualities vary depending on where they are grown and processed. Either way, pepper has a multitude of food and beverage applications. That is why it is a spice consumed worldwide. Compared to other spices, the flavour of peppercorns survives far longer too.
One way to find the right pepper for yourself is to buy them in a small portion to test them out. You can certainly start with these six finest pepper in the world to spice up your life!
"If salt helps bring out flavours, black pepper makes foods bolder versions of themselves." – Serious Eats
Almost every recipe or culinary creation can use a pinch of black pepper. Marinate, sprinkle, or blend, each time you add some pepper into your dishes; just remember you are also creating a ripple of positive impact in supporting your local farmers and the industry!
*Disclaimer: The article serves as a general guide on the diversity of flavour and aroma that world-famous black pepper has to offer. It does not cover an exhaustive tasting or sampling of pepper from every part of the world.
This article is brought to you by the Malaysian Pepper Board
The average pepper farmer is often affected by the volatile prices of the commodity. Be it black pepper or white pepper, much of the farming and selling activities necessitate the aid and intervention of government bodies, including the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry. As the agency tasked with leading the advancement of the Malaysian pepper industry, the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) has been at the forefront of ensuring the resilience of the pepper industry in the country since 1971.