Black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) universally acclaimed as "Black Gold" and also known as "King of Spices" is one of the great economically important agricultural commodities of commerce and trade in India since pre-historic period. The crop is the major source of income and employment to small and marginal farmers in the predominantly pepper growing State of Kerala where more than 2.5 lakh farm families are involved in pepper cultivation. Kerala accounts for 80-90% of the total pepper production in the country (Spices Board, 2008).

It is the fruit of the tropical climbing woody vine, Piper nigrum L., belonging to the family Piperaceae and native to South-western India. Until 18th century, black pepper cultivation and production had been the monopoly of India; the major share contributed by the state of Kerala. However, during the past two centuries, pepper cultivation has been taken up on a commercial scale by several other nations too. India is a leading producer, consumer and exporter of black pepper in the world. Black pepper is cultivated to a large extent in Kerala and to a limited extent in Tamil Nadu and other states. Vietnam, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia are the five main producers of black pepper in the world. In Brazil, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thialand and Vietnam pepper is cultivated as monocrop, and the height is restricted to 4-6m giving a columnar appearance. In India and Sri Lanka, pepper is cultivated as intercrop in coconut and areca nut gardens and on shade trees of coffee and tea plantations where the height is unlimited.

Leaves are simple, alternate, coriaceous, dark green, cordate to ovate in orthotropic shoots and ovate to ovate-elliptic on plagiotropic shoots (Anandraj, 2003). The lamina is entire with 5-7 veins arising from the leaf base or slightly above. The leaf size among the cultivars varies and is upto 20cm long and 15cm broad. Inflorescence is a filliform pendant, called as "spike", borne opposite to the leaves on fruiting branches. The spikes are upto 20cm long, bearing 5-100 minute flowers and cultivating types are monoceious exhibiting great variability in the composition of male, female and hermaphordite flowers in the spike.

Protogyny exists in most of the cultivars, with few exceptions. Pollen dipersal on the spike is mainly carried out with the help of rain water. The fruit is known as berry, with a pulpy pericarp and has a minute embryo with little endosperm and copious perisperm. Pepper fruits usually take 6-8 months for full maturity from flowering depending upon the variety.
The quality of black pepper is mainly depends on two important parameters viz., aroma and pungency. Aroma is due to an essential oil and the pungency to an alkaloid, piperine. The volatile oil is a complex mixture of more than eighty components that include monoterpenoids, diterpenoids, diterpenoids, triterpenoids, terpene alcohols, aldehydes etc. Pepper is widely used not only in food preparations but also in heath care applications.

Today pepper is an indispensable ingredient in cooking and occupies a supreme position in the cuisines of both East and West. It is used practically in all types of curries, meat and vegetables and most of the fish preparations. The consumer preference for pepper corns is more among the Western people as they relies the presence of pepper in every meal either in ground form, as dried corns or as green pepper. Pepper powder is the only spice served on the dining table, and in flights and fast food restaurants.

Many spices used in food seasoning have broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity. Their antioxidant activity against lipid peroxidation enhances the keeping quality of food. Apart from the use as a popular spice and flavouring substance, black pepper as drug in the Indian and Chinese systems of medicine is well documented (Nadkarni, 1976). For civilized western people this spice is an essential additive to their food; Ancient Egyptians used it as a ingredient in the embalming mixture; for the ancient Aryans it was a valuable drug, and recent years for the common Indians, pepper is a spice as well as a medicine, a sure cure for cold and fever and a component of many traditional Ayurvedic drugs. Pepper is described as a drug which increases digestive power, improves apetite, relief from cold, cough, throat infection, and fever etc. Major alkaloid present in pepper is Piperine which have shown its activities with respect to analgesic, antipyretic (reduces fever) and anti-inflammatory (reduces painful swelling caused by tissue injury).

Just by looking at the different uses of pepper, one realises that pepper indeed is the king of spices which add value not only in the area of cooking but also in health care. One thing is sure- Pepper is going to be the king of spices for many more years to come.

References:

1. Anandraj, M. 2003. Perennial spice crops: Black pepper, Cinnamon, Clove and Nutmeg. IISR, Calicut.

2. Nadkarni, K. M. 1954. Indian Materia Medica. Popular Prakashan, Bombay.

3. Spices Board of India. http://commerce.nic.in/trade/SB_Pepper_Production_In_Under_NHM_


About Author / Additional Info:
I am currently pursuing Ph.D in Plant Biotechnology from Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur.