Peppercorn berries may have originated in India, but plenty of other places around the word have sought similar spice qualities in local plants that are now also called peppercorns. In Part 1 of our series on this “king of spices” we looked at the wide range of peppercorns available from the piper nigrum plant. In Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at five other well known types of peppercorns that are not to be confused with “true” peppercorn berries.
Perhaps the most popular type of alternative pepper is the pink peppercorn. This is actually not a peppercorn in the traditional sense but instead the berry of a plant in a completely different family called shinus melle, also known as the Peruvian pepper tree. It was originally discovered in South America but now it is mostly cultivated in Madagascar, Mexico, and Australia. It is a very lightweight berry with a paper thin outer husk encasing a hard kernel. The flavor has the initial bite like green or black peppercorn but is then finished by a very fruity sweet flavor. Pink peppercorns are best used to finish a dish (especially foie gras). They can also be used in baking or in light sauces, however, you don’t want to cook them for too long or at high temperatures since they easily lose their complexity. Since they are particularly soft, skip the spice grinder and try crushing them by hand or in a mortar and pestle to preserve some of their texture. In terms of quality, it is best to look for berries that are mostly intact with very few separated husks since they tend to break apart easily with age and then quickly lose their flavor.
A rather visually fascinating form of peppercorn is the long peppercorn. These peppercorns are from the same family as the traditional peppercorns of the piper nigrum plant but are in fact their own species. This inch-long bud fruit is made of hundreds of tiny seeds that surround a core stem. Their taste is like mild pepper and mild ginger combined. It is great in sweet-spicy dishes to highlight both sides of its flavor, as well as in stews. These peppercorns can both be roughly chopped or ground to extract their full flavor. Try substituting these for traditional peppercorns in any recipe to create a different and unique flavor profile. It is also great in fresh salads and coleslaws in which their complexities are not cooked away.
Also called Szechuan peppercorns or “numbing spice,” these peppercorns are actually the rinds of the fruit of a shrub in the prickly ash family. Generally used in Chinese cuisine, they are very aromatic with a strong peppery flavor alongside citrusy notes that help break down fatty foods. As their alternate name suggests, they also have unique numbing qualities and should be used sparingly so as to not overwhelm your dish (or your palate). They are best roasted to release their aromatics.
From the same family as traditional peppercorns, these peppercorns are quite rare. They are from the island of Java in Indonesia where they mature on the vine until they are a bright yellow-redish color. They are then handpicked with their stem still attached (hence their name) and sun-dried on bamboo mats. The flavor combines that of a traditional black peppercorn with a citrusy sweetness and notes of lavender, cloves, and nutmeg. They also have a distinct cooling somewhat bitter menthol felling on the tongue. They are used instead of black pepper in many curry dishes, and also as a substitute to allspice or clove.
Also known as Australian Mountain Pepper, these peppercorns come from the Tasmania lanceolata plant, unrelated to piper nigrum. Rarely found outside Australia, they have a unique peppery sweetness that is great atop gamey meats. Since they are typically softer than black peppercorns they may gum up a pepper mill and are best ground instead with a mortar and pestle.
Kim Beaty is an avid home chef and outdoorsman, and a Spice Buyer, Assistant Pastry Chef and classroom instructor at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.