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.
It was noon when we reached Plackad Estate, a large pepper and coffee plantation near the town of Kumily. A family friend had arranged to have the overseer show me around. He was a dark, mustachioed man in a white shirt, trousers and a baseball cap, who carried a silver-tipped stick almost as tall as he was. In thick, rounded South Indian English, he explained that coffee and pepper are often grown together among tall trees because the coffee bushes like partial shade and the pepper vines like to climb the trees.
For centuries, he told me, black pepper drew traders and explorers to Kerala's Malabar Coast. And yet only a handful of dishes highlight this seasoning in its native land. In India, peppercorns have been largely eclipsed by the New World chile pepper, introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century. So although much of the world's pepper comes from Kerala, most of it is packed up and exported.
Walking down a cool green path, we came upon a dozen pepper pickers in button-down shirts and colorful plaid mundus, the sarong-like garments worn by South Indian men. The overseer waved his long stick and shouted at two wiry young men, who hustled a 30-foot bamboo pole over to a vine-covered tree. One of them climbed up this "ladder" in a pair of flip-flops and started picking clusters, or "spikes," of green pepper off the bushy vines. He stuffed the green clusters into a sack tied around his waist; women in cotton saris wandered below, retrieving any spikes that dropped to the ground.
I pulled a spike off a nearby vine and ate the green berries like grapes. As I bit down, I was immediately seduced by the spicy asparagus taste. But this fresh flavor is a fleeting affair--it grows sharp when the peppercorns dry. In a sunny clearing, dozens of straw mats held batches of peppercorns at different stages of drying. Only after three days in the South Indian sun, when they are completely black, are they trucked down on lorries to the processing plants in Cochin.
Following a few of these lorries, the Ambassador delivered me safely to one of the plants in the spice district of Cochin. The enormous white courtyard was covered with a layer of peppercorns six inches deep, undergoing their final drying. Standing at the edge of the courtyard, I watched three barefoot men stir the sea of tiny black balls with a wooden paddle, their bright mundus the only color in this stark black-and-white scene.
Since there was no other way to get to the warehouse, I did the only thing I could: I took off my shoes and walked across the peppercorns. But what the workers do so blithely was torture to my soles. Who knew that walking on peppercorns would feel like having a billion sharp stones jab into my feet? The way I hopped and yelped my way across the courtyard, I could have been walking on fire.
Then I entered the barnlike structure where the pepper was being bagged, sorted by size and shipped out. There was a lot of activity: an old man sat on the floor stenciling burlap sacks, another weighed out 70-kilo bags, a third hand-stitched the full bags closed and a short old woman swept up the pepper dust.
A handsome young man walked past me balancing a sack on his head, and suddenly I recalled the Rushdie passage. What a wildly unlikely place for a tryst, I thought. As I turned to go, I sucked in one last breath of the heady pepper fragrance. And as the grand finale to my quest for pepper, I sneezed.
The special ingredients (such as curry leaves) in the following recipes can be found at Indian groceries or ordered from Kalustyan's, 212-685-3451.
Story and recipes by Maya Kaimal. The author of the award-winning Curried Flavors (Abbeville), Kaimal is currently at work on a second cookbook about South Indian cooking for HarperCollins.