I WAS STANDING IN A DARK, cavernous shed in South India piled high with burlap bags of peppercorns, thinking about a love scene in Salman Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh. It's in a hot Cochin warehouse like this one, filled with pepper dust and rows of bulging sacks, that the beautiful spice heiress seduces the dashing duty manager. The pair consummate their love atop bags of Malabar pepper, mingling the edible with the erotic in a coupling destined to be remembered ever after as "pepper love."
My visit to this warehouse--the last stop on a 10-day journey through Kerala, in southwestern India--was inspired by my passion for pepper. Having grown up in America, I didn't really discover peppercorns until 10 years ago, when my parents brought a jar of them home from my Aunty Kamala's garden in India. I cracked open a few and popped them into my mouth--and ever since then I have looked for ways to feel that bite on my tongue. I've ground black pepper coarsely to make my father's spicy chickpeas. I've mixed it, finely ground, with other spices in my morning tea. I've patted it, coarsely crushed, on pork tenderloin to make a fiery crust. I've even added it to pound cake, blending buttery, sweet and spicy flavors. And so recently, when I traveled to South India to visit my relatives there, I spent a good part of my time in search of pepper.
My tour began with a dusty four-hour drive from Kottayam, where Aunty lives, into the mountains of eastern Kerala. They're called the Cardamom Hills, but they're also dense with pepper. My driver and I were in an Ambassador, the classic tank of a national car, which isn't known for its shock absorbers, and we were traveling on what could generously be described as a two-lane road, a thoroughfare for trucks barreling down the hills laden with tea, coffee and spices. I distracted myself with the scenery, which soon changed dramatically from the coconut groves of Kottayam to wide valleys blanketed with tea plantations. The air was fresh and became blessedly cooler as we made our ascent. Soon we were cutting through steep red hills on an increasingly winding road that we shared with water buffalo, schoolchildren and large mats spread with drying peppercorns.