September 20, 2023
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.