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Black pepper is a spice or seasoning common in many cuisines. It is made from the unripe fruit, or peppercorns, of the Piper nigrum plant, a flowering vine native to South India. This spice is usually ground for use in foods.
The fruit of the Piper nigrum consists of small berries that start out green and become a deep red when fully ripe. Black pepper is only one of the products that can be made from peppercorns. White pepper, green pepper, and pink pepper are other varieties.
Black pepper is made from the unripe, green fruit of the pepper plant, which is cooked in hot water, then dried. The hot water serves to clean the peppercorns and to rupture their skin, which speeds the work of browning enzymes as the fruit is dried. The peppercorns are either left in the sun to dry or dried by machine. The skin becomes dark and wrinkled and the fruit hardens during the drying process.
The peppercorns are hard and must typically be ground in order to be edible. However, ground pepper loses its flavor quickly. Most chefs recommend grinding pepper as needed, immediately before adding it to food, in order to retain the most flavor.
Though black pepper is a staple on kitchen tables around the world today, it was once so valuable it was used as money. In the ancient world, the most important source of this spice was India's Malabar Coast, the southwest coast of the country. The spice was traded with nearby countries, eventually making its way to China, Greece, Egypt, and the Roman Empire, though only the richest could afford it outside of South Asia.
Black pepper was a major catalyst of the European Age of Exploration beginning in the 15th century. Trade routes to India and other sources of coveted spices were extremely valuable, and the countries that controlled them controlled the European economy. During the Age of Exploration, pepper became more plentiful in Europe and people of average means became able to afford it.
Today, black pepper still accounts for one-fifth of the world's spice trade, but India is no longer the main producer. Vietnam now leads the export market, followed by Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, and India, respectively.