Red or Pink “peppercorns”. Szechuan or Sichuan “peppercorns”. Black peppercorns and white peppercorns. Bottom left going counterclockwise. The first two aren’t even peppercorns, despite their names. Red or pink “peppercorns” are actually berries (Shinus molle) about the same size as peppercorns but aren’t close relatives. They were discovered in South America but now thrive in commercial plantations in Madagascar, Mexico and Australia. They aren’t as “peppery” as real peppercorns but they add a wonderful flavor to certain dishes. I like to use them together with black and white peppercorns as a rub for large roasts or steaks. While these pink/red imposters are called red or pink peppercorns, they take away from a little known fact that there are, indeed, REAL red peppercorns of the same family as the green, black and white ones. When the piper nigrum ripens on the vine, they turn a dark red and are used fresh off the vine, with a subtle, less sharp pepper flavor. But their state is fleeting, and personally, I have never seen or tasted a real red peppercorn…
Szechuan or sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) are the dried buds of a plant described as being more closely related to the citrus family, rather than more traditional peppercorns. If you look closely, they are quite different but nevertheless possess zing, sting and numbness when used to excess. The hot and spicy food of Sichuan cuisine relies heavily on this wonderful spice. A friend once brought some extremely fresh Sichuan pepper from China and I opened up the bag and inhaled deeply, only to cough violently and grab my chest as though I had inhaled the devil. Wicked stuff, these little pods…
More commonly known black pepper (piper nigrum), is what 95+% of the world thinks of when you say “salt 7 pepper”. They are the nearly ripe berries of the plant that are harvested and allowed to ferment before they are sun-dried and their skins wrinkle up and become varying shades of brown to black. As the default black pepper in our home, we use tellicherry peppercorns from India. Though we buy locally sold black pepper which probably comes mainly from Indonesian plantations… People tend to ignore the difference between good black pepper, freshly cracked or ground and the nearly flavorless version you can often see and buy in groceries. I NEVER buy already cracked or ground pepper; always get fresh peppercorns and grind them yourself. It does make a huge difference.
White peppercorns are merely black peppercorns with their skins removed. However, I find that white peppercorns and ground white pepper lacks some of the character of their non-naked siblings… fancy chefs like to use ground white pepper in creamy sauces, soups, etc. where they feel the bits of black pepper mar the purity of the dish… I rarely use white pepper, but always have it in stock in the pantry.
On our recent trip to Cambodia, we were thrilled to taste these “Kampot” peppercorns, famed for their size, flavor and fragrance. Kampot is a geographical region, and the peppers from there are highly prized. We brought home a kilo of the peppercorns and wished we had purchased more. Very good stuff. I find they were even more appealing than run of the mill Tellicherry peppercorns, though I suspect good quality Tellicherry and other Indian varieties would still win an overall taste-off… With pepper and salt being the two most common spices/additives to the food we cook today… one really has to explore the spectrum of quality when it comes to the various peppercorns and pseudo peppercorns… Next up, some green peppercorns.
Source: The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices