This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”
“Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama’s tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon’s Tower of Belem to the Malabar Coast.” So wrote Salman Rushdie in his 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, with such insouciance that you could be forgiven for missing the point. Indeed, pepper has an almost bland ubiquity today that belies its superstar status in the history of commodities trading. Long before da Gama and his tall ships, the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder lamented the annual drain on the empire’s economy due to pricey imported pepper from India, while Alaric the Goth who sacked Rome in the 5th century demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of his ransom.
When dominance of the spice trade passed from Rome into Arab and Venetian hands, others took to the sea in a bid to break this monopoly. Genoan-born Christopher Columbus, acting for Spain, struck out West in the hope of reaching India and instead found America and a place in history. Da Gama, from Portugal, sailed in the opposite direction, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Calicut in 1497, opening up India to European trade and ultimately colonisation.
For the spice that launched so many ships, pepper’s name comes to us via an apparently careless misunderstanding. Two similar species grow native to India: Black pepper (Piper nigrum) in the south and long pepper (Piper longum) further north. Long pepper is now largely restricted to certain Asian and North African cuisines and to the more adventurous patrons of London’s specialist food markets. In ancient times, however, it was traded alongside black pepper and the name given to it in Dravidian (South Indian) languages, pippali, was mistakenly used by the Romans, corrupted to piper, to refer to both types of pepper.
It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to guess that the Latin piper gave rise to the English pepper, alongside similar words across Europe – the French poivre and the German pfeffer, for example. More distant cousins include the Arabic filfil, which travelled to East Africa into Swahili as pili-pili. This name later attached itself to a variety of chilli, which in Portuguese became piri-piri – now immortalised in a popular sauce.
Botanically-speaking, chilli is unrelated to black pepper and grows native to the Americas, taking its name from the Mesoamerican language Nahuatl. The Swahili case, however, is just one of many examples of a word for black pepper being redeployed to describe chilli and its relatives. “Pepper” itself is an obvious example when prefaced with chilli, bell or jalapeño and equivalents can be found in many other languages. It is ironic that chilli, spread worldwide by Portuguese traders, not only supplanted long pepper as the world’s culinary firecracker of choice but also appropriated its name. Even more ironically, the bona fide Indian word for black pepper (the Sanskrit maricha) in addition to being gazumped elsewhere by pippali, has now been pressed into service in a number of languages (e.g. as mirch in Hindi) to describe chilli! Indeed, to specify black pepper in Hindi, as opposed to red or green chilli, you need to put the qualifying word kali (black) in front of mirch.
Word origins notwithstanding, chilli is now integral to Indian cuisine and India today is one of the world’s foremost chilli producers and consumers. The country that produces the most pepper, on the other hand, is not India but Vietnam, and one can only hope that it proves as powerful an aphrodisiac there as it did for Rushdie’s hero and heroine, who consummated their love atop sacks of “Black Gold” in a Cochin warehouse and called it “pepper love”.