We love our black pepper crab and our white-peppery bak kut teh, but there is far more to this pungent pick-me-up than meets the eye.
In home and professional kitchens, on restaurant table tops and at hawker centre stalls all over Singapore, pepper is a given, and it’s provided free. But this wasn’t always the case.
There was a time when pepper was a luxury item only the wealthy could afford. Evidence of its use in Europe goes as far back as 1000BC, with references in Roman and Greek texts. Trouble was, it came all the way from growers in Asia to consumers in Europe. In between lay a chain of ship captains, traders, middlemen and distributors out for world domination, or at least, desiring to make some good money.
It helped that the vast distance between the continents meant that a spice like pepper could be elevated to mythical status, with fantastic tales of how dangerous it was to obtain. This included a famous tale of pepper pickers having to put life and limb at risk to get past the dragons that guarded the pepper pits! Who was to know what was true and what was not, but it all helped to increase pepper’s desirability quotient — as well as its price — so much so that, at one time in history, it was prized more highly than gold, used as a currency and could be used to pay rent and taxes, and even offered as dowry.
Over the centuries, different countries took control of the pepper trade, from Middle Eastern, North African and Italian traders to the Portuguese, Dutch and American colonisers who came — or thought they came, in the case of Columbus — to the pepper-growing countries of Asia. Filled with tales of skullduggery, treachery and greed, pepper had the power to make and break sea trade domination, and even entire economies.
Thankfully for us today, things all but came to a grinding (pun intended) halt by around the 19th century. By then, pepper was being grown in many more countries than could be controlled by colonial powers; supply was up and prices were down.
Still, though, pepper is an important enough commodity that, in 2010, Singapore launched the world’s first global black pepper future contract. Transacted by the Singapore Mercantile Exchange, here is where you can expect to hear terms like ‘Lampung’, ‘Tellicherry’, ‘Malabar’, ‘Muntok’ and ‘Vietnam’, which refer to pepper grown in different regions of Indonesia, India and Vietnam, for instance.
Pepper is still a money-spinner, not because of its high price, but because it is consumed in increasing quantities all over the world. With about 70% of the world’s supply grown in Asia, and the world’s largest consumer being the US, pepper is a perfect trading commodity that brings markets together.
Singapore is also among the world’s largest importers of pepper, not because we’re consuming all these tonnes of the spice, but because, true to our entrepot roots, much of it is exported to other markets. So the next time you carelessly sprinkle your soup with the stuff, or grind it over your steak, remember the dragons guarding the pepper pits, and how far these aromatic seeds have come since those early days.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Pepper is the most widely traded spice in the world but it wasn’t alone in driving international sea trade centuries ago. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were also hot commodities.
- The Dutch phrase “peperduur”, which means “pepper expensive”, harks back to the spice’s glory days, and today refers to something that is very expensive.
- Main types of pepper: Black pepper, white pepper, green pepper, Szechuan pepper
- In the earlier uses, pepper was used for making perfume, embalming the dead, preserving meat and used as a traditional medicine.
- Today, it is still used for some of these purposes, but is mostly used to flavour food.