Spices and cooking have always been a very meaningful part of my life. Growing up in Kenya, my late mother Veena Puri authored a cookbook and ran her own catering business and cookery school. As I write this article, I cannot help but reminisce her inspiring kitchen tales laced with stories about the well-famed slave and spice trades that traversed several countries across Africa and Asia.
Most of the spices that we employ in our cuisines today have played a rather huge role throughout human history. The spice trade of Asia defined one of the most powerful economic influences of that era. It was the driving force behind the economy throughout the Middle Ages right up into modern times. So powerful and dictatorial a trade it was, that it could: execute decisions, agreements, define ethnic diversity, drive a culture, reveal ones wealth and a countries dignity.
Every so often, we dash a bit of black pepper over our meats and roast potatoes without giving it much thought. Who would have ever thought that these beautiful tiny black balls were once so rare and dear that they were often referred to as “the king of spices”? Long ago, they were used as an appeaser to the gods and employed in the ancient market place as a substitute for money. Pleasing and pungent in flavor, black pepper is today, a low cost spice that often just sits on our dining tables holding a list of endless health benefits.
Black peppers’ ability to enhance the performance of the digestive tract by reducing flatulence and bloating has been widely celebrated through ancient Indian and traditional Chinese medical texts since time immemorial. In Ayurveda, pepper is added in tonics to treat common colds, coughs, sinusitis and nasal congestion.
As children, whenever we came down with the flu, our nanny, Hannah, would prepare a potent concoction of black pepper corn infused hot water topped up with generous dollops of honey and a good squeeze of lemon. Just one or two shots were good enough to get us back on our feet and ready for school the next day.
My maternal grandmother would have us hopping around the house with a rub of “neat hot” black pepper infused oil bang on our toothaches. And her terrorizing “keep eco-parasites at bay” bitter black pepper “khaara” or herbal drink would have us fearfully hiding behind the long living room curtains in the hope that she wouldn’t find us. Another amazing health benefit of black pepper is, that it really is a great handy spice to have in the kitchen especially when you cut yourself. The next time you have a minor nip or cut, sprinkle some black pepper on it. It will help stop the bleeding plus it has antibacterial properties that will kill germs and promote healing.
Black peppers’ priases can be sung all day long. The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with this spice so much that they would actually use the oil to embalm bodies of the dead, in the belief that the departed soul would be allowed to take part peacefully in the afterlife. African “baba mdawas” or medicine men “exorcise” the epileptic, and treat blood sucking anemia, bilharzia and cholera “demons” with the extensive use of black pepper.
Whatever one’s belief – taboo, social or health, if you like to spike your dishes with a dash of black pepper every now and then, by all means do it and generously so! Because sometimes adding a favorite flavor can actually benefit your health as much as it does your taste buds.
Aunty Hannah’s Black Pepper Kaara
2 cups water
2 inch piece ginger
5 whole black pepper pods
1 lemon juiced
Generous dollops of honey
Put everything together in a pot and boil for about 20 minutes. At this point the water quantity should have reduced to half the amount and the water turned slightly brown in colour. Mix in the lime juice & honey and gulp while warm.