Pepper is often described as the “king of spices,” and it shares a place on most dinner tables with salt. The word pepper originated from the Sanskrit word pippali, meaning berry. Pepper is now grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Kampuchea as well as the West coast of India, known as Malabar, where it originated. The United States is the largest importer of pepper.

Both black and white pepper come from the shrub classified as Piper nigrum. Piper nigrum is one of about 1,000 species in the Piper genus that is part of the larger family of peppers called Piperaceae. The various species of Piper are grown mostly as woody shrubs, small trees, and vines in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The Piper nigrum is a climbing shrub that grows to about 30 ft (9 m) tall through a system of aerial roots, but is usually pruned to 12 ft (3.66 m) in cultivation. Its flowers are slender, dense spikes with about 50 blossoms each. The berry-like fruits it produces become peppercorns; each one is about 0.2 in (5 mm) in diameter and contains a single seed. Each plant may produce berries for 40 years.

The hot taste sensation in pepper comes from a resin called chavicine in the peppercorns. Peppercorns also are the source of other heat-generating substances, including an alkaloid called piperine, which is used to add the pungent effect to brandy, and an oil that is distilled from the peppercorns for use in meat sauces.

As a natural medicinal agent, black pepper in tea form has been credited for relieving arthritis, nausea, fever, migraine headaches, poor digestion, strep throat, and even coma. It has also been used for non-medical applications as an insecticide. Of course, black pepper is a favorite spice of cooks because of its dark color and pungent aroma and flavor.

White pepper is also commonly used and is popular among chefs for its slightly milder flavor and the light color that compliments white sauces, mayonnaise, souffles, and other light-colored dishes. White pepper is also true pepper that is processed in the field differently than its black form.

A mixture of black and white peppercorns is called a mignonette. Ground pepper is also popular in mixes of spices. A French spice blend called quartre epices consists of white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and either nutmeg or mace. Kitchen pepper is called for in some recipes for sauces and includes salt, white pepper, ginger, mace, cloves, and nutmeg. Pepper, therefore, proves itself to be a versatile and essential ingredient in combination with other spices, as well as in solitary glory in the pepper mill.

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