Black Pepper: From India’s “Black Gold” to Afterthought

Europeans colonized India in its quest for the once priceless spice. How did we start taking salt’s best friend for granted?

GettyImages-542383196 black pepper
Calicut, India has a long spice trading history, exporting black pepper and other spices (Soltan Frédéric/Sygma via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


September 20, 2023


9 min

Depending on where you grew up, the word “pepper” can conjure drastically different visuals. You may picture waxy, ketchup-red serranos or little black spheres packed with heat.

For this conflation, among other things, we can blame Christopher Columbus, who arrived in the Caribbean in 1492 while searching for a direct route to Asia to access valuable spices like black pepper. Upon his arrival, Columbus encountered spicy chilis, which he deemed similar in taste to the black pepper he was familiar with from India, a mix-up only a colonizer could make. 

Black pepper was a form of currency, a sacrosanct salve, and the prime source of heat in subcontinental food for millennia. Europeans colonized India as it sought the priceless pepper. Yet, over time, the world’s most-traded spice transformed from “black gold” to ubiquitous kitchen staple, one we often take for granted.

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