How Did Black Pepper Spread in Popularity?
Visiting a restaurant in the Western world or even a home often means finding salt and black pepper as common condiments on the table used to give taste to our dishes. Salt has been native to many regions and is commonly found; however, black pepper was a far more limited plant (Piper nigrum) that natively grew in South and Southeast Asia. The spread of this pepper is intertwined with ancient trade expansion that once connected the length of the Old World. In more recent times, this pepper became a fixed a daily condiment.
Archaeologically, we know that black pepper was used at least by the 3rd millennium BCE in India. In fact, although pepper can be found in southeast Asia, it was probably India, and specifically in the province of Kerala, that pepper was most utilized or even strictly native to. For centuries, it most likely was not traded very far from its places of origin, remaining in India and influencing Indian cuisine to this day. Eventually, however, we begin to get archaeological data that suggest pepper made it to Egypt sometime around the 2nd millennium BCE. Traces of black pepper have been found on Ramses II, specifically in his nose, suggesting it was used in the mummification process. It was likely also used in other parts of the Near East by the 2nd millennium BCE; however, plant remains of pepper are difficult to detect so this can only be a conjecture.
In fact, trade and migration of Indo-Europeans in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE likely began to expand black pepper outside of its traditional confines in India. Indo-Europeans began to migrate across the Near East and into Europe, likely bringing their foods with them. However, archaeologically and historically, remains of pepper are very limited. This likely suggests it was either not very popular or too expensive for common consumption. Pepper can be preserved through drying easily enough, suggesting it was not preservation that would have been a major hurdle for its spread.