History of Pepper

History of Pepper



Known as the “King of Spices”, pepper is the most important spice traded internationally.

Pepper was one the earliest commodities that was traded between the orient and Europe. In medieval times, pepper frequently changed hands as rent, dowry and tax. “Peppercorn rent” may today mean something trivial or next-to-nothing but in the middle ages, pepper was the preferred currency, prized by the wealthy. The history of medieval Europe throws up further evidence of the influence pepper had in the trading community. Pepper traders even had their own vernacular names i.e., ‘Pepperer’ in England, “Pfeffersacke” in Germany and “Poivrier” in France.

The cities of Alexandria, Genoa and Venice carried on brisk trade in pepper during the middle ages. In fact, they owed their prosperity to this priceless commodity.

Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea-route to the spice lands of Malabar Coast in 1498 was triggered by his obsession with spices, particularly pepper. Gama’s feat had two results. One, it gave Portugal a secure monopoly over the spice trade. Two, it destroyed the economies of Alexandria, Genoa and Venice, which were built on the prosperity which pepper had brought them. For the next two centuries, Lisbon was the richest European port since it remained the key trading center for pepper and other oriental spices.

In 1595, Houtman of Holland made a successful voyage to Indonesia. This was the beginning of the end of Portugal’s monopoly over spice trade. By 1605, the Dutch drove away the Portuguese from the Moluccas. Holland gradually established a firm grip over the pepper producing centers near Lampong in Sumatra and Banten in Java. Pepper is a thriving agricultural activity in these regions even today.

The Dutch control over spice production and sale was considerably weakened by 1650 when pepper cultivation spread to the Malay Archipelago. The Dutch could not do anything about it because this area was outside their sphere of influence. During the 19th century, London emerged as the world’s most important spice center. By then, increased production had driven pepper prices down, making it affordable even to the man on the street. Pepper no longer remained the exclusive commodity of the rich and famous.

When the fortunes of the Dutch East India Company were down, the US entered the scene. In 1797, Jonathan Carnes of Massachusetts sailed into the New York waters with Sumatran pepper worth US $100,000. The US cities of Salem and Boston soon became main spice centers. Incidentally, the dare-devil commanders of the 18th century trading ships were the forbearers of the present US merchant marine.

Today the pepper trade encompasses the whole world with Western Europe, United States, Japan and Korea being the biggest consumers. The main pepper producing countries are Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, China and Sri Lanka


The pepper vine thrives best in the tropics, in a moist, hot climate, at elevations from 1500 feet mean sea level, with an evenly distributed rainfall of about 100 inches. The richest growth is seen on fertile, flat or gently sloping land, rich in humus with good drainage and light shade.

Between 1997 and 2002, world production of pepper (piper nigrum) increased dramatically from 189,000 tons to 341,000 tons which was an increase of over 12% per annum. The increase in production is mostly attributed to Vietnam’s emergence as a major pepper producer. However, output from the other producing countries also increased substantially during this period, with increased production coming from Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and China. There was a fall in production in 2003 in India, Brazil and Malaysia. This trend reversal may be considered significant, especially with Vietnam having reported no increase in production in 2004. World pepper production in 2003 was estimated to be 327,250 metric tons.

In 2003, Brazil produced around 35,000 tons of pepper (32,000 tons black and 3,000 tons white pepper), from around 41,000 hectares cultivation. The state of Para is the main producing area with about 32,000ha under pepper. Other smaller pepper producing areas in Brazil are in Espirito Santo, Bahia and Maranhao States. The varieties of pepper grown in Brazil include Singapore (Kuching), Bragantina (Panniyur-1), Guajarina (Arkulanmunda), Iacara-1, Kottanadan-1, Apra, etc.

In India, pepper cultivation is mainly confined to the Southern States i.e, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The total area under cultivation for 2002 was estimated at around 220,620 ha, with Kerala accounting for almost 70% of the total production. There are many varieties of pepper developed and grown in India, including Karimunda, Kottanadan, Panniyur -1, Panniyur-3, Panniyur-4, Panniyur-5, PLD-2, Subhakara etc.

The main pepper producing areas in Indonesia are Lampung province for black pepper and Bangka Belitung province for white pepper. The total production from these two provinces accounts for 70-80% of the total pepper production in Indonesia. The other 20-30% comes from West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, South Sulawesi and West Java. In 2003 the total production was 57,000 tons comprising of 33,000 tons of black pepper and 24,000 tons of white pepper. The main varieties grown in Indonesia are Bulok Belantung, Jambi, Kerinci, Lampung Daun Lebar (LDL), Bangka (Muntok), Lampung Daun Kecil, Petaling etc.

In Malaysia, the main pepper producing area is the State of Sarawak which accounts for more than 95% of the total Malaysian production. Other pepper producing states are Johor and Sabah. In 2003, the area under pepper cultivation in Malaysia was estimated at 13,000 ha. Semongok I, Semongok II, Semongok III, Semongok Perak, Kaluvally, Kuching, Belantung, and Djambi are some of the varieties grown in Malaysia. In 2003, Malaysia produced 22,000 tons of pepper comprising of 19,800 tons black and 2,200 tons white.

The total area under pepper cultivation in Sri Lanka in 2003 was 31,000 hectares, with the Central province having the largest share (more than 50%), and the rest spread over the North-Western, Sabaramuwa, Uva, Western and Southern provinces. Panniyur, Kuching and local selections such as PNMI are the main varieties grown in Sri Lanka. Total production of pepper in Sri Lanka in 2003 was 12,750 tons.

In Vietnam total cultivated area was estimated at about 52,000 hectares in 2003. The main production areas are in the Central Highlands and the South East, which together account for more than 84% of the total area. The total production of Vietnam in 2003 was reported to be 88,000 tons (85,000 tones of black and about 3,000 tones of white pepper). WORLD PEPPER TRADE 

Generally, pepper is identified by its port of export or the region where it is grown. ‘Lampung’, a commercially important pungent black pepper is grown in the Lampong province of Sumatra and in a few other areas of Indonesia. ‘Malabar’ is a variety of pepper produced in the Alleppey district of the southwest coast of India, while ‘Tellicherry’ is yet another grade of black pepper, grown in the northern part of the Malabar coast of India. ‘Sarawak’ pepper is grown in Sarawak State in Malaysia, along the northwestern coast of Borneo. ‘Brazilian’ pepper is produced in the state of Para on the Amazon River. Brazil was the first country in the western hemisphere to produce pepper on a commercial scale. Japanese settlers were largely instrumental in producing ‘Brazilian’ pepper in increasing quantities. ‘Muntok’ is the most important variety of white pepper grown in the island of Bangka and exported through Pangkalpinang, a port on the south eastern coast of Sumatra. A major production center for white pepper in Bangka was developed by Chinese planters over the past century. ‘Brazilian’ white pepper is lighter and less pungent than ‘Muntok’. ‘Vietnam’ pepper is now extensively traded though Vietnam became a major producer of pepper only very recently.

In 2003, the export of pepper from producing countries was reported to be 226,160 tons. This is a decline of 7% from 2002. It is for the first time in five years that a fall in total exports has been reported. India, Indonesia and Malaysia were the main countries that exported less, offsetting Vietnam’s increase in exports.

Exports of pepper from producing countries have increased consistently, from 135,700 tons in 1998 to peak at 242,600 tons in 2002 which indicates an annual rate of increase of over 15%. While Vietnam’s exports have contributed much to this increase, export increases from Brazil, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia have also been significant. However, exports of whole pepper from India have been on the decline, reflecting the increase in grinding and extraction activities.

PEPPER & PEPPER PRODUCTS The products developed from pepper broadly fall into four groups i.e., black pepper, white pepper, green pepper and oil and oleoresin of pepper. Black pepper is the whole dried fruit of the plant, while white pepper is the dried seed after removing the pericarp of the berries. White pepper is neither too spicy hot nor too bland, and is supposed to be the best of all peppers.

Black as well as white pepper, are widely used as a food ingredient, and as a flavouring agent for a variety of processed foods. Because of their curative value, the medical and pharmaceutical industries also use them extensively. Pepper oil, oleoresin and green pepper have other applications also.

    • Black Pepper: : Black pepper is obtained by drying the ripe green berries. It is widely used by the food industry, in processed meat and in confectionery products. Black pepper is mostly used in three forms – powder, oil and oleoresin. Most countries import whole pepper berries and convert them into powder. Quality-conscious food processors prefer whole black pepper since the pepper oil, oleoresin and the flavour of the original spice are retained in them. USA is the main market for black pepper.
    • White Pepper: White pepper is prepared from the optimally mature peppercorns. The berries are kept under running water for 7 to 9 days to soften their pericarp. After removing the pericarp by scrubbing, the white peppercorns are washed and dried. White pepper is mainly used in the preparation of light-coloured dishes, sauces and soups. West Europe constitutes the major market for white pepper.
    • Ground Pepper: Dried pepper berries today are commercially ground using various types of mills, depending on the users’ specifications (i.e., particle size, volatile-oil content, etc). Critical factors like grinding temperature, hygiene and packaging affect the quality of ground pepper. The producing countries have a number of spice grinders to grind pepper and other spices, with a variety of machines that run on basic technology as well as sophisticated cryogenic systems.
    • Green Pepper:Green pepper is made from the fully developed but immature berries. They are preserved in brine, vinegar or citric acid and may be dried or kept in the preservative. Europeans are fascinated by the natural green colour and fresh flavour of green pepper.
    • Canned Green Pepper: The separated green pepper berries are washed and filled in cans containing a diluted solution of sodium chloride with or without added acidity. The filled cans are then sealed and sterilized by the autoclave process, and cooled under running water. Europe, USA and Australia use canned green pepper for flavouring food and garnishing meat dishes.
    • Green Pepper in Brine: Green pepper in brine is made from young, green pepper berries which are carefully detached from the stalks and preserved in a specially formulated solution of vinegar and brine, to retain the natural color and texture of the berries.
    • Dehydrated Green Pepper: Dehydrated green pepper has the green colour and the flavour of fresh pepper. On soaking in water, the berries turn full and soft, but do not have the texture of green pepper in brine. Freeze-drying ensures better dehydration. Frozen green pepper is made by freezing the berries in a brass freezer. Europe is the major importer of frozen green pepper.
  • Pepper Oil: Pepper essential oil or volatile oil is a natural blend of mainly terpenes and their derivatives that form a clear yellowish green to bluish green colour. It is responsible for the characteristic aroma of pepper. Today, this essential oil is still commercially extracted from the pepper berries mainly by the process of steam distillation.
  • Pepper Oleoresin: Pepper oleoresin is a concentrated, resinous extract obtained by conventional solvent extraction or supercritical fluid extraction. As the name implies, pepper oleoresin consists of a blend of the essential oil, resinous matter of the spice and related compounds like the pungent alkaloid piperine. Pepper oleoresin has a relatively full flavour profile characteristic of pepper as compared to pepper oil. In Malaysia, there is no commercially run oleoresin extraction.
  • Green Pepper Sauce: Green peppercorns are first ground to a puree and then blended with vinegar, salt, sugar or other ingredients. Distinctly piquant with a natural fresh flavour, green pepper sauce is also used as a dip for chips and fries.


  • As a Food Condiment: The use of pepper as a seasoning/condiment, on its own or in spice blends, is on the increase with the growing popularity of snacks, ethnic foods, ready-to-cook meals as well as healthy low-sugar and salt foods especially in the developed countries. Black pepper tastes strongest when freshly ground although pre-ground pepper is often used in seasonings for convenience. White pepper is less aromatic than black pepper but has special applications, as in white sauces where black pepper would give them an undesirable speckled appearance.
  • As a Preservative:The value of pepper as a natural preservative for meat and other perishable foods has been known for centuries. Studies have shown that this is due to the anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties present in pepper.
  • Known Medicinal Uses: Pepper is an important ingredient in Ayurvedic, Chinese, Unani and other traditional medicines. The main therapeutic uses of pepper are as a digestive and as a tonic.

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