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I Spice: White Peppercorns

This Chinese Hot and Sour Soup is made lighter for serving in warm weather. Read on to get the recipe. (courtesy Jaden Hair)

I adore the warm taste and gentle punch of white peppercorns. But many only use them for their lack of color in a dish where black pepper may be too much of a standout. And one thing about this spice seems to be a bother to just about everyone I informally polled: the smell.

“They have a funky smell I don't like at all," said cookbook author Bruce Weinstein. Every time I open a bottle of ground white pepper, I have the same reaction as when I open a package of foul fowl."

White peppercorns cannot only be a second-tier replacement for black pepper. So I asked several Asian cookbook authors, who use it a lot in their dishes, to find out more.

White pepper is an important part of Thai, Korean and Chinese cuisines. In fact, in China, "pepper" generally means ground white pepper and it's a common ingredient in households. Su-Mei Yu, author of the upcoming book, “Elements of life” (Wiley & Sons) and “Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking” (Morrow, 2000) told me that while driving through Chonburi, a city in central Thailand, she noticed cars in front of her had began to slow down and started to zig-zag around patches of blue plastic sheets on the road. On the sheets were white peppercorns that villagers had set out to dry on the hot tarmac, in the sun. When she stopped at one of many stalls lining the roadside, the air, she recalls, smelled like a Thai kitchen.

Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of "Quick and Easy Korean Cooking" (Chronicle Books, 2009) explained to me that white peppercorns do start life on the same plant as the black, red, and green ones (the pink ones come from a different plant entirely), but they're allowed to ripen longer on the vine; the berries are gorgeous when they're left to ripen. Green ones are unripened berries, freeze-dried or preserved in brine to retain their color. Black ones are allowed to grow to full size, but not to ripen, on the vine, and are picked and dried. Red ones are the fully ripened berries, processed similar to green peppercorns to retain their fun color. To get white peppercorns, growers wait until the berries are fully ripened to red (or sometimes yellow). Then the berries are soaked in water (usually for about a week) until the flesh of the fruit softens and begins decomposing. They're rubbed until the outer fruit is removed and the small inside seeds remain.

These, dried, are what we know as the white peppercorn. The flavor of each kind of peppercorn varies, of course (some people say that white peppercorns are the hottest), but since they all come from the same plant, one can be substituted for another. However, those who cook Asian dishes prefer to use the white peppercorns in light-colored dishes or soups when the colored ones would stand out. White peppercorns are especially good for stir-fries, because they can withstand higher temperatures.

Jaden Hair, food writer, TV show host and author of the upcoming “The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight's Dinner” (Tuttle Publishing), adores using white pepper. She confirmed my own experience with it: finely ground white pepper powder dissolves easily and also seasons the food much more evenly, especially when marinating meats.

I usually buy mine as whole peppercorns at Asian stores and grind it to the consistency I need. I have to be honest, though, and admit that I do like Penzeys ground white pepper powder. Two “types,” identified by their place of origin, are Sarawak peppercorns from Malaysian Borneo and Muntok peppercorns, shipped from the port of Muntok on the island of Bangka, Indonesia.

Readers of I Spice, friends, family and Twitter buddies have recommended using white peppercorns thusly: dusted on hot and sour soup; in mashed potatoes; in white sauces; when making kebabs; in “white” colored bisques and pasta sauces; and of course anywhere where you don’t want to see black specks floating about.

Some chefs even use it in ivory-colored desserts. Pastry chef Gale Gand has developed recipes for both crème brûlée and white pepper ice cream.
-- Monica Bhide

Chinese Hot and Sour Soup
4 to 6 servings

The cornstarch slurry often used to thicken this kind of soup is omitted here to keep the soup light for warmer weather.

The Chinese black vinegar gives the soup a deep, mellow tang that you can't get with white vinegar or red vinegar. It is available at Asian markets, but if you can't find it, use balsamic vinegar instead.

From cookbook author Jaden Hair.

1/3 pound uncooked pork pork, cut into thin slices then shredded (using 2 forks)
1 teaspoon plus 1 to 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Pinch sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 quart good-quality low-sodium chicken or beef broth
1/2 cup shiitake mushrooms, cut into thin slices (may substitute 4 dried Chinese black mushrooms; see NOTE)
1/2 cup canned or fresh bamboo shoots, cut into very thin strips (julienne)
10 ounces firm tofu, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar, plus more as needed
1 freshly ground white pepper, plus more as needed
1 scallion, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices, for garnish

Combine the pork, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, the wine, toasted sesame oil, sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl. Mix well to coat each shred of pork. Let marinate at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Bring the chicken or beef broth to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the pork and stir to separate all the pieces (the marinade should stick to the pork, so there won't be much left to discard). Let the liquid return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and add the mushrooms, bamboo shoots and tofu. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the pork is cooked through and the mushrooms have softened.

Season the soup with the remaining 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and the black vinegar and the teaspoon of white pepper. Stir, taste and add black vinegar and/or white pepper as needed.

Divide among individual bowls; garnish each portion with sliced scallion.

NOTE: To use dried Chinese black mushrooms, soak them in very hot water for 30 minutes until completely softened. Drain, trim and discard the tough stems. Cut each mushroom cap into very thin slices.

Per serving (based on 6): 110 calories, 12 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 488 mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  June 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, pepper  
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I'm in the group that took a long time to warm to white pepper. So, I use it primarily for dishes in which black pepper would clash (cauliflower soup, panisse). Still, I notice the level in the jar going down with time, so it's clearly getting a work out in the kitchen.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | June 12, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I haven't been able to bring myself to use white pepper since a friend who's a spice trader told us that in some places, the pepper is soaked in cow urine. I wish someone authoritative would tell me, "No way!"

Posted by: fran426 | June 12, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Cow Urine? I have never heard of that and none of the authors I interviewed mentioned it. I learn something new everyday!
If I find out anything about this, yu can be assured I will post it here.

Posted by: mbhide | June 12, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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