Pepper, considered separately

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

ScreenHunter_303 Sep. 09 10.42There is undeniably something troubling about the way we use pepper. Pepper is among the most classical of spices, with a history of trade and culinary use that dates back several thousand years. And this history is laden with vast sums of money, world-spanning trade routes, once great empires and much culinary and cultural theorizing. Pepper is also among the most distinctive of flavors, rarely retreating into the background, sharp, pungent, spicy and characteristic of the tropics (where the proximity to the sun brings forth exuberant aggressive flavors in everything). And yet pepper has now been thoroughly domesticated and normalized, so that we keep it on the table alongside salt (very obviously a basic background flavor), and use it in most of the food we eat. Given that pepper is not native to much of the world and that it has particularly difficult and distinctive flavors, this ubiquity seems unnatural and puzzling. Harold McGee reports that the Greeks used to keep cumin on the table and used it much as we do pepper. This seems strange, and the theoretical problem raised is similar to that precipitated by our use of pepper.

Pepper is used ubiquitously but, unsurprisingly given its intensity, it tends to be used in small quantities. This has lead to it becoming invisible. Recipes that use pepper as a primary note are rare and, correspondingly, are interesting both theoretically and aesthetically. The South Indians have a number of such recipes, probably because South India is part of the ancestral home of pepper. The recipe below is copied from watching my Malayali friend Raghavan cook (the Malabar coast has historically been one of the most important sources of pepper, and pepper has been used there for thousands of years). It is a revelation if you're not used to thinking about pepper as a particular and distinctive spice rather than as a background seasoning.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of this template is the structural role that pepper plays. Unlike in many Indian recipes, there is little chili here and pepper occupies the same place and seems to perform a similar function to chili. Interestingly, pepper has been used in India for thousands of years before chili made its European-mediated appearance in the Old World. It is tempting to speculate that these recipes give us a glimpse into pre-chili antiquity in South Asia and gesture at the structural role that chili found itself stepping into upon its arrival. It would be fascinating to analyze the role that chili plays in South and South-East Asia and contrast it with older Mexican recipes, though this would require time and money. But, of course, the point is that pepper is not chili, and the differences are striking; at the least, pepper is warmer, woodier and more citrusy.

This style of pepper-driven recipe (often found under the name of a pepper fry or a pepper roast) is common across South India but is surprisingly rare elsewhere (even in other parts of India). Perhaps it will become more common as time and globalization do their work. I've stripped it down some to make it cleaner. Also note that this is more of a template than exact and precise proportions. In particular, you'll need to play around with the spice ratios. The pepper we used was the local variety, very sharp and pungent, and you might need to increase the quantities. On the other hand, the tolerance for this particular sort of flavor is higher in South India, so if it feels too sharp, reduce. I should also note that it's great with lots of cheap beer or, if you can find it, coconut toddy.

The heart of this recipe is the pepper-heavy garam masala described below. For a ½ kilogram (1 pound) of meat use enough peppercorns to make about a tablespoon (once ground). As I said, you might need to use more if you're making this in a frozen Northern wasteland far from the nourishing embrace of the equator. Take the peppercorns along with cloves (about ten), cinnamon (one stick) and cardamom (about four or six). Cloves, cinnamon and cardamom are basic to a lot of garam masalas; again, the proportions are flexible and I would encourage you to think of these spice blends as outlines rather than as precisely calibrated recipes. Heat a cast iron pan or other skillet / saute pan (if you have a tawa use that) and dry roast the spices for a minute or two, stirring frequently, until they are fragrant and the color changes. Grind them to a coarse powder in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle or with a rolling pin or frying pan. A recurrent theme in Indian cooking is finding various ways to domesticate the sharp flavors of raw spices, and dry roasting whole spices before grinding them is one of the most common.

The recipe is for about a ½ kilogram of goat, cut into pieces about an inch or so across, but you can swap in lamb or some other ruminant. Finely slice two onions (sharp pungent ones if you have them) and about an inch of ginger. Peel a head of garlic and cut a slit along the length of four green chilies. Heat several tablespoons of oil in a wok or Dutch oven. Traditionally, this would be coconut oil, but you can use whatever you want. Saute the onions, garlic, ginger and chillies in the oil until they brown lightly (this sort of step is common as the foundation of braises, stews and curries in many cuisines). Add one to two teaspoons of coriander powder, half a teaspoon of turmeric powder and the garam masala you diligently roasted and ground. Fry while stirring for about 5 minutes, then add two sliced tomatoes. Once they give up their water add the meat pieces and fry them in the spice paste. Then add two cups of water or so (depending on how much gravy you want) and, if you like, add a handful of fresh mint (I've been told that mint is traditional in pepper curries in some regions, and I've been given an explanation that involves some combination of health benefits and taste; I haven't explored this idea in any depth). Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover, and let it cook till done. Eat with rice and some form of simple vegetable.

There are occasional curries scattered around the Indian cuisines that are primarily focused around a single spice. In some cases these are more interesting as intellectual exercises than as feasible meals, but many are delicious. They also seem like usefully clarifying exercises. Too often the use of spice is a confusing jumble, where the particular role of each spice is opaque and its presence is unrecognized. Pepper is interesting enough that it would be a shame if we let its presence pass unremarked. Often the best way to understand an ingredient (or a concept, for that matter) is to overuse it (to know the limit…). If you're feeling adventurous, double or triple the quantity of pepper in the recipe and see what happens.