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Go where the pepper grows

Thursday, November 29, 2018

While pepper changed the course of Indian history, it is now an intrinsic part of Western cooking, says Deepika Mital

Strangely enough, pepper for Indians has come to be associated with bland western cooking. I say strangely because it was in search of this spice that westerners came to India—and thus changed the course of history! It grows in our part of the world and is the most sought after and well known spice in the world. That it was also the catalyst for the colonisation of India is something I leave historians to debate.

My love affair with pepper was not always at the dizzy heights it is now. As a child, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my mother (and all other cooks) were so fond of ‘peppering’ their dishes with these small black balls that were so fiery when you accidentally bit into them, but otherwise seemed to bring nothing of value to the dish, just exacerbating the irritation of having to keep them from rolling down the side of your plate and back into your food! This, incidentally, is the stage my son is at now…

But then I started to appreciate pepper! It was so much more when I started cooking in earnest. It is one of the easiest ways of adding layers to a dish. It can add a delayed fire to a soup or gratin that is not like the common hit of a chilli—the hit from pepper comes later and adds a warm fuzzy glow to your throat and stomach regions. Add it to mulled wine for extra kick on chilly autumn or winter evenings.

I have it on good authority that in Norway (and all of Europe), using pepper was considered pretty advanced! It was also used sparingly since a) it was expensive and b) it was ‘too spicy’. But the most common reference to pepper was in the ‘rude’ phrase – —“why don’t you go where the pepper grows”—in other terms, go far way! I have had this phrase explained to me more than once, as I come from the land ‘where pepper grows’! However, that did not quite prepare me for the varieties of pepper available. Indians are exposed to the black pepper or Tellicherry pepper from India. Lesser known is the white, green or even rose pepper. The last I discovered while on holiday in Turkey and Greece. It adds a tang of lemony zing to any dish underlaid with a distinctive peppery taste, quite unlike black pepper.

But now, pepper is an intrinsic part of Western cooking. Someone (Peugot) even invented the pepper mill solely for the joy of freshly crushed pepper on your pasta or eggs, so that tells you they take it very seriously here. And understandably so—it adds layers of depth to any dish. When used as a whole peppercorn it can be subtle and aromatic, but bursts onto your palate when freshly ground.

An iconic recipe in Norway using peppercorns by the hundreds is fårikål. It is basically a three-ingredient dish consisting of cabbage, lamb and pepper. As unexciting as that sounds, this is a dish made at the onset of cold weather and relies on the cabbage being in season, the year’s freshest lamb and a whole lot of peppercorns to add gravitas. It is the most satisfying stew to come back to after a long walk in the crisp autumn air.

Farikal (From Matoppskrift by Knut Petterson)

Ingredients

  • 12 servings
  • 3 kg sliced lamb shoulder, neck, or breast on the bone
  • 3 kg cabbage, in large wedges
  • Salt
  • 2 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 litre boiling water
  • 1 ½ dl flour
  • 1 ¼ dl cold water

Procedure

1 In a wide, heavy pot, layer the meat with the cabbage, sprinkling each layer with salt and peppercorns. Add boiling water.

2 Bring to a boil and simmer until the meat is tender, about 1½ hours.

3 Season with salt and pepper. The stock should be quite peppery. Stir the flour into the cold water, then stir into the pot to thicken. Bring to a boil.

4 Serve with boiled potatoes.

Deepika Mital is an Indian cook in Europe, a writer, no-nonsense martinet at home and avid traveller

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