A Visit to Pepper Producers in Kerala - God’s Own Country with Recipe!
Throughout my culinary life, pepper has been an ingredient that I use regularly. I was aware of different types and varieties to a point, including Sarawak pepper and Tellicherry pepper and had sometimes used those varieties in food, including spice blends.
Black pepper, the fruit of a flowering vine (piper nigrum) is one of the world’s most traded spices with Vietnam being the largest producer and exporter, even though pepper is native to Kerala, in southern India. Pepper is a spice that has been used since antiquity, both as a traditional medicine and for use in food. It was so prized in history that it was known as “black gold” and is still one of the world’s most traded spices.
It is also one of the main ingredients in my spice blends, especially in my Garam Masalas and in my Chettinad Masala, however, during a visit to Thekkady in Kerala, close to the border with Tamil Nadu I learned so much more.
A chef that I was put into contact with arranged for me to meet with a pepper and cardamom expert from whom he regularly procured spices. He picked me up and after a brief conversation, we set out to see the areas where pepper and cardamom are grown. In Thekkady and surrounding areas, 18 different varieties of pepper are grown and it was an eye opener to see the process from start to finish.
We started by visiting a tribal area, there are two main tribal groups in Thekkady who are producing pepper, the Manan and Paliyan tribes. These tribes live very close to the Periyar National Park in reserved land and outsiders would require special permission to visit. Since our visit was unplanned we could only go to the border area but we could still see the pepper being cultivated.
Pepper is used in so many applications here that it can be seen growing everywhere around town. It is a climbing vine that wraps itself around trees and as a result the pepper farmers plant trees that would be easy for the vines.
The Manan and Paliyan tribes produce pepper known as the Green Tribal and the Black Tribal varieties. The main harvest happens in March and April. From what we have been told, they cannot tell us what sort of pepper is best, it depends on what it is used for, then they can ascertain the best one. For example, for use in the making of chocolate, the preferred pepper is harvested in the month of April as harvest during that time produces the most floral notes.
I was slightly surprised to see that they use limited equipment in the pepper production, harvest is done by hand by using practical tools made of local materials, such as ladders made from bamboo. The pepper vines grow quite high so balance and a steady hand is necessary when harvesting.
Sorting is also done by hard, using screens like these to separate the peppercorns by size.
It was interesting to pluck a peppercorn off the vine and taste it and compare to the dried green variety as well as to the black one from the same plantation. The amount of piperine, which is what gives pepper its characteristic heat varies widely as do the other aromatics, such as limonene and pinene. Black pepper is generally produced by harvesting the green peppercorns, briefly cooking them in hot water and drying them for several days, until the skin shrinks and turns into a hard black layer, after which it is used in food and medicinal preparations.
The tribal pepper produced in this area, also known as Cardamom Hills has relatively small berries but they pack a serious punch. The fresh green peppercorns have a bright fruity taste with a long, lingering heat and low acidity. When dried, the heat can be felt in the mouth for a long time and the aromas could be described as both citrus and earthy. It gave rise to an interesting discussion regarding the “terroir” of pepper.
We all know that the concept of terroir (how a region’s soils, climate and terrain affect the taste of a product) applies to wine, but did you know that it also applies to pepper? The location of a pepper farm makes a huge difference to the taste and aroma of the pepper and as a result affects the food you use it in. I’ll provide a few examples here.
Bottom Left pepper is grown in the Shimoga hillsides in Karnataka state, India. It has a lively and strong heat, slow to develop in the mouth but lingers, it has a distinct floral aroma. It works well in beef, lamb and vegetable preparations. Bottom Middle is the Thalasseri (Tellicherry) Reserve #12 Bold. It hails from a small village in the Kerala mountains. It is the most famous black pepper from India with a rich flavour and aroma, good for every day use. This is a Single Estate Pepper. Good for pepper grinders at the table, savoury dishes , breads and even desserts. Bottom Right is a very special pepper, a Periyar Tribal Pepper. It is grown by Manan and Paliyan tribes in the Periyar region (famous for Tiger protection) of Kerala, near Thekkady. It has a hot bite, followed by a clean, fresh taste. What makes this one especially unique is that it is grown from original cuttings of wild pepper vines in the jungle. It adds an incredible flavour to curries, salads and quickly cooked vegetables.
The Top Left variety shown is called Rajakumari, meaning princess. It is a rare pepper from Rajakumari Village in Kerala. It has a unique aroma due to distinctive mountain terrain with small but dense fruit. Perfect pair with game meats, raw fish or quickly cooked vegetable dishes. The Top Middle one is a Green Tribal Pepper, grown by the Manan and Tribal Tribes in the Periyar region of Kerala. It is the same variety as the Periyar Tribal Pepper but harvested and dried without being cooked in hot water like the black variety. The flavour and aromas are fresh, young and with a heat lighter than black pepper. It works well in cream sauces, fish, steaks, vegetarian dishes and even chocolates! The Top Right Pepper variety is called the Kolli Malai Pepper. Only available in small quantities, it is grown in the state of Tamil Nadu, my ancestral state. It has an intense aroma and a heavy heat. Great for people who love hot pepper.
The main thing that I learned though, is how little knowledge I actually have about pepper and the spice industry as a whole. It left me thirsty for more knowledge.
Later on that day, I was given a lesson in cooking with pepper. Here is a recipe from that lesson that I would like to share!
Thekkady Pepper Fried Fish
1 kg fish fillets or steaks, skin on
4 sprigs fresh green peppercorns (or 4 tablespoons dried green pepper, soaked in water for about 2 hours and drained)
1 5 cm piece fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder
1 sprig fresh curry leaves
Oil for frying
Grind ingredients (except for fish and oil) to a paste in a strong blender. Add a little water if necessary to facilitate blending.Cut slits in skin of fish. Coat with paste and marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat oil in heavy pan, fry fish until cooked through and skin is crispy. Serve with lime wedges.