In 1603, James Lancaster arrived back in London after several years in pursuit of riches, bringing ships laden with peppercorns. He was in command of the first British East India Company fleet, an entity that was granted a royal charter by Elizabeth I in 1600, and had travelled to south Asia and back.
Pepper is believed to be originally from Kerala and specifically the Western Ghats, a humid and wet stretch of mountains on the western coast of India. It was known throughout antiquity and particularly loved by the Romans, and was well established in England by the 1100s, when the Guild of Pepperers was formed in London. (This guild went on to become the Company of Grocers, which is still in existence today.)
The desire for spices such as pepper drove European expeditions eastwards, to cut out the middlemen who brought them overland. Ultimately, the desire to own and amass riches from these spices and similar goods drove colonialism. The unknown “east” became known and ownable. In a sense, those first pepper-filled ships marked a turning point, a period when the western world shifted, after which there was no going back.
Elizabeth I’s charter for the East India Company was for 15 years, but her heir, James I, extended it indefinitely with only one rule: the company had to turn a profit to keep the charter. As the historian Alex von Tunzelmann has written: “Thus a beast was created whose only objective was money … pure capitalism unleashed for the first time in history.” In another passage, she writes: “It was a private empire of money, unburdened by conscience, rampaging across Asia, unfettered into the 1850s.”
With pepper, as it is for migrants, the answer to “where are you from?” is complex and varied, and involves many stories and histories including colonialism and violence; it can tell us about hidden pasts and forgotten voices. As a mixed-race person from postcolonial places who has found a home in Britain, and whose family grew pepper in Borneo, my story feels entwined with the spice. I quite simply exist because of these global trade crossings.
From this personal relationship, I began looking into the farming and use of Sarawak pepper five years ago, when I saw it on a menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. This turned into a wider pepper exploration and a 10-part podcast series, Taste of Place. Pepper’s origin story is nuanced, at times contradictory and always fascinating. It is also a story of cuisine, and how it has embedded itself in various cultures.
I learned that white pepper developed a hold in French cooking during the Renaissance period so as not to darken the roux; that it is a feature in Hong Kong Cantonese cooking, particularly in the sauces and broths, as it is aromatic. It is now as much a staple in British cafes as it is in breakfast noodle cafes in Kapit, a riverside town deep in the Sarawak interior where my family are from.
For many of the people I interviewed, pepper was evocative of a very specific memory. Black pepper on scrambled eggs allowed the British-Mauritius artist Shiraz Bayjoo’s grandmother to cook him breakfasts she thought he had become accustomed to in the UK; it is the essential ingredient in the pasta dish cacio e pepe; the anthropologist Dr Mythri Jegathesan relates it to her mother’s rasam; and it has become family lore for the novelist Emma Hughes as a “Scottish” recipe with strawberries. How pepper is part of different lives was the way into this research.
As for my own connection, Sarawak is a state of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, and its pepper has been a tool to look into my heritage. I have re-seen the spaces of my childhood as spaces of labour. I have also found that the trade routes of today are still as opaque and shrouded in mystery as they were 500 years ago.
When questioning Sarawak pepper importers and suppliers in the UK and Europe, I was met with vague answers, ghosted or flatly refused any information. I wanted to know about supply routes, and if they knew the areas or individual farms they were getting pepper from. I found suppliers of specialist products often fall back on the idea that quality should speak for itself.
This framing erases the labour of the brown and black bodies who care for the pepper plants. In Sarawak, it is often Indigenous farmers. As a former member of the Malaysian Pepper Board, Larry Sait, explained to me, pepper is a cash crop that puts children through school and food on tables. As an Iban (an Indigenous group from Sarawak), the use of Sarawak pepper in the UK feels exoticised. It has appeared on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants, and yet no one knows who the Iban are, and few even know where Sarawak is.
So where does pepper really come from? It comes from hot, tropical landscapes. It comes from Subang’s small family farm upriver from Kapit, Sarawak, where pepper prices have dropped so much she is farming less and less. It comes from the Parameswaran family farm in Thiruelly, Kerala, where they have been farming for 35 years and hand harvest just as berries ripen. The answer feels infinite, but ultimately pepper comes from people and communities.
The colonial project was to create a shorter supply chain for the benefit of the merchants and traders, which it did with violence and brutality. Contemporary suppliers and importers are arguably doing the same. But we now have access to more knowledge. We don’t need to romanticise and dehumanise the supply chain, we can reorder these chains to put money back into the communities that grow pepper. Do you know where your pepper is from?
Dr Anna Sulan Masing is a writer and academic. Her podcast Taste of Place was launched in 2022 with Whetstone Radio Collective, and her debut book, Chinese and Other Asians, will be published in February 2024