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.
Spread of Black Pepper
Trade in black pepper seems to have expanded by the 4th century BCE, reaching the Aegean and Europe more frequently. This period represented some of the early developments of what would become the Silk Road, suggesting some of the trade in spices such as pepper and black pepper specifically would have come via this route. With the conquests of Alexander, Greek colonist were now reaching India and contacts became more common. The major turning point, however, was the knowledge of the monsoonal and climate patterns that affected the trade winds along the Indian Ocean by the end of the 1st century BCE. This open up new opportunities for direct sea voyaging between Europe and China via Egypt and the Red Sea, through land and sea routes, although an early version of the Suez Canal had also been developed by the Achaemenid period in the 5th century BCE. The connection via the seas also enabled China to now incorporate black pepper in its culinary diet, at least by the 2nd century BCE.
The knowledge of important trade winds, development of major empires stretching across Europe to China (there were only 4 major states between Britain and China in the 1st century CE), and increased contacts and movement of people in general now made pepper become commonly imported into Roman Europe. The Roman increasingly made pepper part of their diets, while its popularity also spread in the Near East and China. Traders in Arabia and Middle East probably played important roles as middle men in the trade network. This not only made them wealthy but they likely continued to have a hold of this connection even after the fall of Rome. Both the Silk Road and connections via the Indian Ocean were now vital to this trade.