Fri, September 1st, 2017

Text: Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Vines of pepper used to thickly entwine trees in the backyards of every Sri Lankan home in the past. Their shapely, broad leaves would give off a green glow and the strings of pepper berries like green pearl rope bracelets, unclasped, would trail delicately from the stems. The peppercorn, the wrinkled black dried fruit, indispensable in the kitchen from Colombo to Colombia, comes from a plant that is a native of Sri Lanka and of South India, whence it spread all over the ancient world. It was so prized that it was christened the ‘King of Spices’ and ‘black gold’. Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome, in the first century, had even complained that India drained Rome of a lot of gold with its pepper. Indeed, pepper is still a lucrative trade. The Ceylon black pepper contains more piperine, an alkaloid responsible for the pungency of black pepper, than anywhere else. It has a more pungent flavour and aroma that lends Sri Lankan dishes their characteristic fire.

Pepper in the island is mostly grown in cooler, lush areas, in the mid or low regions: mostly in Matale, Kandy, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Badulla and Moneragala districts. Here the plucked green berry is dried in the sun till it becomes black, hard and ridge veined. The smooth white peppercorns are produced by removing the outer layer before the drying. The story of Ceylon pepper is one locked in legend. ‘Miris’, the Sinhalese word now used for chilli, which was brought in from South America, emerged relatively late; therefore ‘miris’ was rightfully the term for black pepper in the past. One of the grandest ancient stupas of the country, raising its spire against the sacred skyline of Anuradhapura, is called Mirisawetiya, which can be translated into ‘mound of pepper’. The reason is that it was built by King Dutugemunu as penance after he dined on a dish of pepper without consecrating the first part to the monks, as was his usual habit. After red chili burst onto the scene, it was initially called rata-mirisor ‘imported’ or ‘foreign’ pepper. Later, the luscious scarlet pretender claimed the name miris all for itself, and pepper had to be content with ‘gam-miris’ or the ‘village chilli’.

At Ministry of Crab, Piper nigrum is celebrated magnificently in the popular ‘Pepper Crab’. Dharshan Munidasa sees Pepper Crab as the ultimate fusion of two of Sri Lanka’s endemic ingredients: pepper and the famous mud crab. Hand crushed peppercorns, whole peppercorns, and a pepper stockwork together to cook a hot and savoury crab.