Hard to believe there was a time in my life when I didn’t like, or least care much about, Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) – especially given my impassioned love for it lately. Of course, given I grew up in the South where Salt and Sugar are less seasonings and more like food groups, it may be understandable.
Lately, I’ve been finding myself drawn to Black Pepper not just as seasoning but also in the herbalism sense and it has been finding its way into my tea blends adding a certain magic to them. It has fast become my first herbal love of 2013, which is unusual given it is not one of the most talked about plants by herbalists.
You know Black Pepper close up looks kind of like an alien world? Or perhaps like a valuable piece of ore? Well, considering that Black Pepper (which is the dried fruit of a vine) was so valuable that it was used as money in some places – that’s hardly surprising!
I have to admit that I started getting more into Black Pepper as part of my shifting my tastes away from too much salt. One great way to move away from one thing when you cook and eat is to stimulate the other primary flavors. For example, if you wanted to use less salt, then cook with more sweeteners or more pungent seasonings such as curry and/or Black Pepper. But then I began to appreciate how helpful Black Pepper is as an herbal ally.
Black Pepper, like the majority of classic kitchen herbs, found its way into our cuisines because of its anti-microbial properties. It has been found that Black Pepper kills about 38% of the bacteria that causes food to spoil (“Antimicrobial Functions Of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot” J. Billing and P. Sherman, Quarterly Review of Biology, March 1998, Volume 73, No. 1. ) But in particular, it is a synergist spice that when combined with other common kitchen herbs would effectively kill almost all said bacteria. All of which goes a long way toward explaining why it is such a common staple of so many spice blends and part of the reason it is paired especially with meat (more on this, and that, in a moment.)
Some of its commonly used herbal/medicine/health properties include:
- Antiseptic, anti-parasitic and antimicrobial
- Helps coughs (Take about a teaspoon of ghee or honey and mix in about a quarter teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Use about a couple of times a day for a few days.)
- Digestive aid (especially with fatty foods and protein – it works by simulating pancreatic enzymes that help you digest fats and proteins, thus its frequent pairing with meat!) used to help with indigestion, diarrhea, flatulence and nausea
- Diuretic (with minor kidney problems it can be an aid, but avoid with major kidney disorders – like most diuretics!)
- Expectorant (just add it to tea to help with hoarseness and chest congestion)
- Improves blood circulation
- It’s a warming herb and as such is considered a stimulant as well as mildly analgesic and mildly antidepressant (I think most any warming herb is as well.)
That’s kind of nifty collection of uses but that’s just internally. Externally the essential oil (never use neat but instead blend in a carrier oil) has been traditionally used for its warming, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties to aid with arthritis, rheumatism, sore muscles and joints (makes a nifty muscle rub!), itchy skin and for toothaches and dental problems.
One of my favorite emergency uses for Black Pepper is for wounds. In addition to the analgesic and antiseptic qualities, Black Pepper stops bleeding and stimulates cell healing. In a pinch, you can put fresh ground pepper on a cut or wound. It stings for a few seconds, but it works well.
Another nifty gift of Black Pepper, both for herbalism and cooking, is how it helps to bind ingredients and aids in their absorption by the body. Studies have shown that it increases the body’s absorption of nutrients such as beta-carotene, selenium and B vitamins. It has also been studied for its ability to increase the helpful health properties of Turmeric. In Ayurveda it is used to bind herbal formulas and increase their absorption by the body. This special aspect of Black Pepper is one that I’ve grown to really appreciate as I make tea blends since I find it is not just warming, but powerful in how it enhances the effects of the blends in small amounts
So go and discover the pepper love, but don’t go wild with it – just a little bit goes a long way. Grind a little into your food after cooking or thrown in a few peppercorns in your tea blends and that’s all you need for the magic to happen. And magic it is!
Wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?