A generation ago, home remedies were the norm of the day. We had traditional oil baths with fragrant warm coconut oil that had black pepper corns floating in it.
A dip in the river, or being drenched by a thunderstorm, meant a bowl of rice with hot mulag rasam, a broth of pepper and cumin, and there would be no sign of a cold, or sniffle. If a child had a rumble in the stomach or sore throat no one went to a doctor or chemist. Ghee was heated in a small copper vessel, say a teaspoonful, and tiny pepper corns were roasted in it, cooled and given to the child when still warm. Presto, there would be no sign of sickness.
Huge jars of pepper were stored at home and used for just about everything. One still remembers trying to steal a sprig of green pepper pickled in brine and how one enjoyed each corn seated under the mango tree. The taste and tingle remain etched in memory.
For many of us, pepper, therefore, was and is a friend for life.
Spiced with history
Among prized spices, pepper holds a special place since ancient times. It was traded extensively in Europe and Egypt centuries before the birth of Christ. It was also a popular form of "money." Known as black gold, ships and overland caravans came to India in search of pepper, thanks to its medicinal, culinary and beauty-enhancing properties.
Legend has it that Cleopatra, the queen with a penchant for beauty, had special lotions made with pepper corns for her skin. This is not all. Pepper corns have been found in the tombs of many Egyptian mummies, including the nostril of the legendary Ramses II.
It is also believed that Attila, the Hun, and Alaric, the Visigoth, asked for pepper as ransom when they attacked Rome and ransacked it. To top it all, it was also for pepper trade and control that great empires fought and lost battles.
Pep it up
The pepper plant is a vine that grows luxuriantly on trees or trellises. Green, black, as well as white pepper corns are produced from the fruit of Piper nigrum, a native of the Malabar Coast. It was actually from here that the plant was introduced to other pepper-growing regions like Indonesia.
The term, pepper, comes from the Sanskrit word, pippali. The expression was used centuries ago to convey energy and spiritedness. Not surprisingly, when we say "peppy," we continue to refer to the very essence of the spice pepper corns add to our food and pep us up with many medicinal properties.
In India, pepper has been a part of the making of our nation for over 4,000 years. The spice finds mention in old Tamil literature as well as epics like the Mahabharata.
This is not all. If Buddhist monks who undertook long journeys on foot were asked to swallow 7-10 pepper corns each day to develop endurance and immunity from ailments, in ancient China pepper was used to treat diseases like malaria, cholera, and dysentery.
Recent archaeological excavations at Berenike on the Sudan-Egypt border, along the Red Sea, confirm that there was a profitable trade route that existed between Rome and India more than 2,000 years ago. Among the many treasures uncovered by the expedition was eight kg of black pepper. From India, ships also carried pepper treasures to Egypt and transported them over land to Europe.
Extensively used in traditional medicine, black pepper is part of ayurveda, siddha, and unani systems of medicine. It is suggested to be beneficial in the treatment of digestive tract problems.
One early reference to the use of pepper in food is found in an old Roman cook book. Yet another ancient tome, Syriac Book of Medicines, mentions the use of pepper in the treatment of ailments like constipation, diarrhoea, earache, gangrene, hernia, insect bites, indigestion, certain eye affections, dental problems, and so on.
Pepper has been traditionally used to improve digestion, eradicate worms, treat coughs, colds, sinusitis, heart problems, colic, diabetes, anaemia, and piles. Chewing black pepper reduces throat inflammation. Oils or salves with black pepper are used for the treatment of scalp infections and skin diseases. Pepper's anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties are also well known and oil of pepper is prescribed for itchy skin conditions.
Pepper contains alkaloids such as piperine, which according to research studies, functions as a central nervous system depressant. It also has anti-fever, anti-inflammatory, and anti-insecticidal properties. Extensive work on the possibility of using pepper for the treatment of leucoderma [partial or total loss of skin pigmentation], and as an anti-fungal and anti-oxidant agent, is now in progress.
Research establishes the fact that pepper increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and, because of this, it enhances digestion and prevents the formation of gas. Heartburn and gastric disturbances are caused when undigested food reaches the small intestine and bacteria work on the food leading to formation of gas or diarrhoea [loose stools].
Black pepper is known to have diuretic [an agent that increases the excretory volume of urine] and diaphoretic [an agent that induces perspiration] properties apart from anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial functions.
In aromatherapy, pepper is used to relieve muscle pain, stiffness, and paralysis.
Inhalation of pepper oils along with eucalyptus or marjoram is suggested to relieve sinusitis and colds, effectively.
Extensively used as a culinary spice, pepper is integral to cooking of spicy, aromatic soups and main courses all over the world. As a matter of fact, pepper was used, in long-gone times, to preserve and cure meat. When used to flavour curries, gravies, poultry, and processed meats, freshly ground pepper adds a special taste to food.
Grinding fresh pepper into sizzling steak, in modern cooking, has become a ceremony that adds a flavourful flourish to our dining experience.
Pepper is vital to our kitchen-shelf and we use it as a flavouring agent without realising the role it has played in history. To go back in time - pepper was used to pay ransom, taxes, rent, and dowry. It was as precious as gold and used as a medium of exchange. This was reason enough why adventurers and sailors set out to chart a passage to India - to maximise and exploit its innumerable potential and value.
History has sure changed, but pepper continues to hold its magical spell on our culinary basics and advance, not to speak of our medicinal needs, just as it did with our forbears. Call it peppery permanence in a world that is used to speak customarily in terms of impermanence.
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