Migraines, migraines, migraines! Ugh, they sure slow me down but, never stop me 🙂 Luckily, there is black pepper to help with migraines, and it is great for other uses with a long, long history behind it.
I am sure if you went to an American public school that you learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, back in 1492, and he did so to find Spices. (If you didn’t I am sure you got a different story, and possibly more, or less, accurate depending on where you are.) Spices were that mystical substance found in the “East,” that were used to cover up rancid meat. Since apparently our “crude” European ancestors didn’t care if their food was off as long as it was coated in spices. Every country must have it’s creation myth, and this is the one taught here. ‘Murica!
But in all seriousness, spices are important. Important enough to attempt dangerous voyages, or commit horrible crimes upon the native owners of the fabled spice plants. I am looking at you VOC. Spices may mask some of the early stages of food turning rotten, but would not cover them all once it has turned, or make it alright to eat without severe consequences later. Also rotted food is gross, really gross. (Which if that stuff is your fancy, interesting stuff is being learned on disgust now and why we have it) Generally this myth about spices is not believed by actual historians, so while they weren’t used to make gross, inedible things edible, it did make edible things a lot more exciting. In the immortal words of Emeril, they let you kick food up a notch. BAM! It was that excitement of the palate, the way they activate the senses, and rarity, that made spices so desirable. Spices make the meal, it adds complexity, depth, and helps us avoid the monotony of blandness. Even just adding salt and pepper can take a meal from meh, to wow! But we, as a culture, hardly ever notice it as we dump massive amounts of both on our food, before even tasting it.
Spices usually traveled great distances, and because of this commanded great prices, and were first used in small amounts. Sometimes used as precious medicine, and many of them were, even if they were not necessarily used in the right way all of the time. Of course some of them weren’t medicinal, or magical, but were still used as medicine since rare things are often claimed to have powers to add to its price. Also used in cooking, but sparingly and it makes the dishes from Richard II’s kitchen more luxurious when you realize that a small piece of ginger was not only crazy expensive so only nobility could afford it but it made it all the way to England, over possibly months or even years. A lot of these spices that traveled far and were known in the historical eras dried easily and were easy to transport. Some of the most important were cloves, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, in later years nutmeg, and of course black pepper. Black pepper and cloves take the distinction of being the oldest traded, and most important of them all.
Pepper, most well known in its hard, small, bead-like black pepper form, is made from the berries of the Piper nigrum vine. This vine that grows native in India, but is a global crop now, and it is the little berries that are harvested to make what we know and recognize as peppercorns. The berries (drupes to be precise, but I will use berries since most people understand what berries are 🙂 ) hang in long clusters, and turn redish orange when ripe. They are sort of like harder, larger seeded grapes, or coffee berries.
Harvesting at various stages of ripeness, and its preservation method, determines the color of the end product. The vines are quite beautiful, and they like to grow in tropical areas where there are lots of trees and things to support its vine-y growth. Since pepper and cloves were so easy to transport, they were some of the first spices to travel and make it over great distances. Pepper was once the sign of great wealth, and was extremely expensive, hence its epitaphs of the King of Spices, or the Master Spice. Even thought its price has diminished to allow it to be more accessible, it is still the most used and most traded spice in the world. It has even kept its name Black Gold, though it now shares that moniker with crude oil.
“Wait!? Pepper!? That common thing that we pay as little attention to as salt? That is on every table, be it fast food or fancy. That pepper was crazy expensive?!?” You are probably thinking to yourself.
It was not only expensive, it was used as a form of money it was so precious. Many sayings come from this use of pepper, like in England “peppercorn rent” came to be used for a token payment, or for extremely discounted rents. The Dutch phrase “peperduur” translates to “as expensive as peppercorns.” In the Middle Ages pepper was used to pay dowries, and even taxes. Now we have pepper everywhere, to the point we expect it and take it, and its low price, for granted. People purchase and use pre-ground pepper which is dry and bland, never getting to experience the complexity of white, or green pepper. Or the wonderful taste of black pepper when freshly crushed. Next to water and salt (which we really under appreciate), black pepper is the most common ingredient in cooking. But, considering we have used pepper since 1000 BCE, it is sort of easy to see how it may have become common, and lost its luster and air of exoticism. Americans consume about .25 lbs (.11 kg) a year and Tunisia is the highest consumption at .5 lbs (.23 kg) a year, and most of it is the most common black pepper.
Pepper has a long history with humans, it has been around since at least 2000 BCE in India where it has been known to have been used by Indian cooking for generations. It was found dried and stuffed into the nostrils of Ramses II, most likely placed there during the embalming of his body. Pepper is native to India but only in a very small place in the region of Kerala, and pepper had to travel great distances to get to Egypt. It is still not known exactly how pepper got to Egypt from India, since there is no documentation of it prior to 600 BCE. The most likely suspect would be by dhow, a type of boat that has plied the seas between Africa, the Middle East and India for longer than humans have documentation for, leading to a lot of debate on how early they could have been used just in general. Using the cycle of the Monsoon winds, as is done now, it would have been fairly easy journey from India to the Middle East or the Horn of Africa with spices for trade. After the Kon-Tiki, it is very plausible that these trips were going on for many years before someone happened to write it down. This trip is still made today by the same type of boats, and it is an easier route than the over land, later known as the Silk Road.
By about 400 BCE Greece was very familiar with black pepper, even if they could not always afford, or find it. They first called black pepper peperi. Black pepper was not as popular as Long Pepper, in Greece and was not a huge feature in their foods. The Romans later caught on to pepper and called it piper. Once Rome conquered Egypt and a sea route to Malabar was possible, and as it became more available Romans grew to use black pepper more frequently in their cuisine. In fact, they almost became pepper fanatics. Pliny the Elder complained that vast amounts of Rome’s income was flowing to the East. Brennus, the original Hells Angel, after laying siege to Rome demanded as ransom for the city 1000’s of pounds of gold and silver, and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns. Vae victis indeed.
Pepper traveled more and more widely and gained popularity in every country it traveled to. Up to the Middle Ages, all black pepper in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa came from Malabar. As Europe grew a taste for pepper its popularity there quickly increased. There is folklore that Indian monks used them for energy, and the term pepper came to mean energy or energetic, and it is where the term “pep” came from. Like with Tea, when it was scare and valuable, many people kept their precious pepper supply under lock and key. People considered poor were the ones with “no pepper” and in Germany a term for the rich was “pepper sacks.” Pepper is what made the wealth of the merchants of Venice, and was what helped to drive the Age of Exploration. Pepper was one of the spices people sought to find a direct trade route to that started all those expeditions. If you were a merchant in Venice one of the ways to bribe a tax collector was with a pound of pepper. The oldest guild in London is the Guild of Pepperers, started in 1328 CE. Soldiers were given it as payment after battle, and when a wreck of a boat originating from England dating to about 1545 CE was found, all the sailors bodies recovered were found to have peppercorns on them. Not only was pepper wealth, it was easily portable wealth, which made it easy to carry during travel or trade. It was so highly prized, along with salt that you have fantastic items like the Cellini Salt Cellar being made. Which pretty much screams luxury at you, telling you how highly regarded pepper was, displayed in a golden and enameled chest next to a possible Earth goddess who faces her counterpart the Sea god and his boat of salt.
If you have ever been to a spice store, you know there are more types of pepper than just black. And to make things more confusing there are different types of black pepper. So it is important to understand what is out there, what it is, and what is important for cooking and/or medicine.
All of the below listed versions are made from Piper nigrum, which produces most of the well known peppers.
Red Peppercorns – (not to be confused with Pink (Rose) Peppercorns) these are pickled in brine or vinegar, and sometimes called orange pepper. These are not imported into many countries, and if they are, they are pretty expensive. Maybe I will get to try them eventually. The taste of these is said to be more mellow and similar to dried Tellicherry black pepper.
Green Peppercorns – much more affordable, than Red, but still expensive due to the amount of processing and all that work gives a small yield. These are made from the unripe berries from the pepper vine. They are then sometimes treated with chemicals to preserve their color and freeze dried, dehydrated, or canned. A more traditional processing means they are pickled in brine or vinegar. If you are making peppercorn sauce, this is the version traditionally required to make it.
White Peppercorns – this is actually just the seed of the pepper berry with the fleshy outer coating removed. The berries are soaked in water until the outer fruit loosens around the seeds. They are then rubbed to rid them of the remaining fruit and dried. White pepper is often used in white sauces, to prevent marring the color where black pepper would stand out. White pepper since it lacks the fruit, does have a slightly different taste than black pepper since it retains its fruit coating. When I lived in Australia, this was commonly used in restaurants as the pre-ground pepper on the tables. I wonder if that is still done there? Muntok white pepper is grown in Indonesia, and generally hand harvested, soaked, and hand processed as well as sun-dried. It is the most common and best known white pepper, and is generally harvested well after ripening and then processed. It has a mild heat and almost wine flavor, it goes best with poultry, cream, and shellfish. Sarawak white pepper is from Malaysia and has more licorice or musk-like flavors, and is considered the better white pepper of the two. It is processed mostly the same as Muntok, except they are soaked in running water sometimes in jute bags which improves the taste. Again this is great for softer dishes and recommended for fish as well as all the things Muntok goes well with. Juila Child always said you should always use white pepper in a béchamel sauce to prevent unsightly specks.
Black Peppercorns – the still unripe berries are harvested and cooked briefly in hot water, they are then dried usually in the sun since the heat helps to change the color as well as dry the berries. These are what most of you fill your pepper mill with, or if you buy the pre-ground stuff your pepper shaker. Tellicherry (which is a city in Kerala) black pepper is from the same vine as other black peppers, but it is allowed to stay on the vine longer until it is just about to ripen before it is harvested, giving it a more fruity or floral characteristic. Malabar peppercorns are from the famed Malabar coast in Kerala, and are basically the most well known black pepper taste, it is more bitter than Tellicherry more citrus and pine flavors. Black pepper can be used in anything from ice cream. the crust of your finely grilled steak, or just a sprinkle on your mashed potatoes. There are other types than just the two listed, usually based on what country they are grown in. Black pepper is the most valuable medicinally, since they still contain the black peppercorn oil, and this is the oil used for medicinal purposes.
ProTip: It is highly suggested that when buying a pepper mill one should invest in preferably of plastic or metal models, since wooden ones can actually suck the oil from the berries causing them to be less fragrant and potent over time. I have to admit though I have a wooden one myself that I don’t have the heart to get rid of since it was a gift, and since I use pepper a lot I haven’t noticed that much degradation.
Pepper has some sometimes impostors, useful cousins, and replacements – if pepper isn’t available. They have their own uses, and names should be noted if you are looking for medicinal items, to prevent confusion, since these do not have the same characteristics as black pepper and shouldn’t be substituted in medicinal preparations.
All of the below listed plants carry a common name of pepper, but are a different species from black pepper.
Long Pepper – made famous more recently by Sam Adams if you are a beer nerd, since it was used along with grains of paradise in a beer he made that brought back some old fashioned beer spices. Long pepper is usually tied (or confused) with black pepper and seems to have been used interchangeably or preferred over black pepper for its similar taste but slightly hotter kick than normal black pepper
Grains of Paradise – also made famous with long pepper in Sam Adam’s beers, this is not actual of the same genus as black pepper. This plant is more closely related to ginger and is sometimes known as African pepper, or alligator pepper. While it has a peppery flavor the chemicals in it are more closely related to the same chemicals produced by cardamom. Common in West and North African cooking, it is used in brewing as well as flavoring gin and sometimes akavit (a Norwegian alcohol).
Pink (Rose) Pepper – this can be one of two species Schinus terebinthifolus or Schinus molle, both of these are native to South America and is generally the pink-red peppercorns you can buy in peppercorn blends. This is a great culinary spice and I highly recommend keeping a black pepper, and a black, green, pink, and white peppercorn mix on hand for cooking. I love the taste of this mix on eggs the most. Pink peppercorns are antiseptic, and good for wounds but we will not be discussing its uses in depth in this post.
Jamaican Pepper – (aka allspice) I am including this one here since it was thought, when first discovered by Europeans, to be black pepper or some near relative of it. It is used in a variety of cuisines in savory and sweet dishes. Its current name allspice comes from its flavor which the English when first experiencing it thought it smelled of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg combined.
Adulteration & Substitutions
Peppers have been adulterated for pretty much as long as people were figuring out how to cheat others. Sometimes dried juniper berries were used, sometimes papaya seeds, which sounds a bit better than wooden faux nutmegs. If it was already ground, there are horror stories of people using dust from floor sweepings to adulterate pepper.
Some places use pepper substitutes because pepper either does not grow there, or it is too expensive to import. The desire to use plants that have this spicy effect to jazz up food, almost seems to be universal.It should also be noted that chilies are called peppers some places but are completely different, we will go over them in the future.
Because I love cooking, and these are all interesting substitutes. Not to mention possibly useful to people who have a pepper allergy. So here are some alternatives to pepper:
- Japanese pepper – aka sanshou, berries are used
- Sichuan pepper – berries used here too
- Winter’s Bark – aka Canelo, the bark instead of the berry is used here
- Kawakawa – the seeds only
- Mountain Horopito – the leaves are used
- field pepperweed – fruit and seeds used
- Virginia pepperweed – aka peppergrass, young seed pods used
- Shepherd’s purse – whole plant is edible
- horseradish – root only is used to make the familiar horseradish sauce, but also can be substituted for pepper, wasabi is a relative of horseradish and can be used too.
- field pennycress – seeds only are used for pepper, but whole plant is edible
Why are they called corns though?
They aren’t made of corn! Just like corned beef, or corned gunpowder, corn is a term for any small seed-like item that originates from Old English, and possibly proto-German. So since pepper berries once dried look like small seeds or beads, corn was applied to them and the term stuck.
So, OK, pepper is awesome, but also way more complicated than it looks.
How do you use it medicinally?
In the Ayurvedic tradition it was used to treat migraines, using a paste made from crushed black pepper cooked in milk and then smeared on the forehead. Ayurveda used it as a digestive, and for gastrointestinal distress, which the Europeans found the same uses for it too. It is also great for colds, since it increases mucus flow and can help get things moving again. It was also used in other traditions as a skin treatment to relieve hives and other skin issues. Black pepper is a natural antiseptic and is actually a great source of vitamin C. It should help to strengthen the immune system and is why its included in the turmeric tea recipe. You can always add a pinch of pepper to your turmeric teas, or ginger teas to help with pain and inflammation.
Black pepper has analgesic properties as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodics, its warming effect on the skin also feels lovely on sore achy muscles. Black pepper oils carry a lot of the same chemicals we have discussed with previous plants, camphene, α-pinene, linalool and other sesquiterpines are present which account for its medicinal versatility. It can also irritate the gut in larger doses, aiding with slow digestion or constipation, but small amounts help with digestion and “prevent wind.”
Pepper Oil for Sore Muscles and Migraines
- 1 oz Carrier oils (any good quality oil will do)
- 15-20 drops Black Pepper essential oil
Mix well, store in a dark bottle. Massage into a spasmed muscle, or just exhausted ones after a workout. It works great for areas of neurological pain, and massaged into the temples or a spasmed neck to ease the pain of migraines. The warmth and drawing blood to the area helps heal muscles, as well as ease pain. It works great for inflamed joints as well. You can always reduce the amount of pepper to 10 drops and include 10 drops of other oils like eucalyptus, lavender, copaiba, juniper, clary sage, clove, ginger, fennel and frankincense not to mention many others. Most scents smell nice with pepper (a good bet for a mix is floral or citrus) but will provide additional relief.
Black pepper is also good in a salve, which makes it easy to use on the go. So these are great to keep in your gym bag, or near where you work out.
Black Pepper Salve
- 1/3 cup Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, just should be of vegetable origin)
- 1/3 ounce Bees Wax, granulated, or grated
- 5-10 drops of Black pepper oil
Heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax. Stir constantly until fully melted and everything is combined. Remove from heat, and slowly stir in, by hand, the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is great for arthritic pains, rheumatoid or otherwise, and good for muscle pains on the go.
You can always make the cheater version by whipping 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the black pepper essential oils. You can also make a chai spice version which smells fantastic as well as helps with pain, and with the addition of raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.
Chai Raw Honey Salve
- 1/3 cup Oil (same as above, just make sure it is good quality)
- 1/3 ounce of Bees Wax
- 1/3 ounce Raw Honey
- 2-3 drops ginger
- 2-3 drops cloves (start with 2 and add more if you like since clove can over power things)
- 2-3 drops of nutmeg
- 3-5 drops cardamom
- 3-5 drops cinnamon
- 2-3 drops black pepper
First heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax, like above then add raw honey. Stir mixture until fully melted and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and stir in by hand the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is a great salve for painful cracked skin to help it heal, to put on a wound before bandaging, and is great massaging into painful joints and muscles. Also a great gift idea!
Home made chai tea is also fantastic, and there is a great recipe here you should definitely try, and I have more fast and loose recipe I like to use.
Chai Tea from Scratch
- 1/2 inch to inch piece of ginger peeled and crushed
- 2-5 peppercorns, cracked but not ground to powder (start small and increase to get it to where you like)
- 2 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
- 2-3 cloves, slightly crushed
- 1/3 cup water
- 2/3 cup milk (or milk substitute, coconut cream goes well here, go for the full fat options if you are bold)
- 1 teaspoon of Black tea (others are fine, and if you don’t have loose 1 teabag will do, Earl Grey will work in a pinch too)
- Honey or sugar to taste
You don’t want the ingredients completely broken apart but crushed enough to allow maximum surface area for the flavor to disperse into the liquids. Throw it all in a saucepan cold, let it heat up slowly until just before the boil, making sure to stir or swirl the pan constantly. Strain and serve. This is great on a cold morning to warm the hands and ease stiffness and pain. But frankly it is good any time, and well worth the effort 🙂
Black pepper oil is also good, in my opinion, rubbed directly on the skin. Just a drop or two into one of my painful spasmed muscles brings soothing warmth as well as a smell that helps keep me alert. I enjoy it the most massaged straight, with no carrier oils, into my neck and spasms in my face when migraines are an issue. Which if you have sensitive skin this may not be the application method for you. I also don’t recommend using this near bed time as I have found the smell isn’t so great when you are trying to sleep. It is also good for the hair and a drop with rosemary on the hairbrush and brushed into the hair smells quite nice.
If you know anything about Italian food, or if you are an Anthony Bourdain fan, you probably have heard of Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. A dish that’s deceptive simplicity can highlight ingredients, or mistakes. You can never go wrong with Lidia’s recipes so I have provided her’s. This is my sort of simple comfort food, and reminds me of home since Mom would make this often. It also is a good way to get a good dose of pepper in your diet that isn’t a beverage.
- 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
- 1 pound spaghetti
- salt for the pasta water
- 1½ cups Pecorino-Romano, freshly grated, or more to taste
Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil.
Grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder.
Warm up a big bowl for mixing and serving the pasta-use some of the pasta water to heat the bowl, if you like.
Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Quickly lift it from the pot with tongs, let it drain for an instant then drop it into the warm bowl.
Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments-add more pepper or cheese to taste.
Serve right away while the spaghetti is very hot.
All this time that little humble pepper shaker on your table has held all of these secrets, you may not take it for granted the next time you shake, or now hopefully grind, it.
Remember, do your own research and educate yourself before trying anything, and everybody’s body is different. Make sure this won’t have interactions with your medications by checking sites like WebMD, and if you have any doubts at all if this is for you, ask a professional!