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Black Pepper Shrimp

Black Pepper Shrimp

By Tim Hazell

The value of pepper in ancient times was such that it was frequently used as collateral. Alaric the Visigoth included 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of the ransom he demanded from Rome when he besieged the city in the fifth century. The exuberant spice was known in England as far back as the seventh century, when a riddle authored by Saint Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne,

illuminated black pepper’s role among the wealthy Saxons of the time:

I season delicacies, the banquets of kings, and the luxuries of the table,

Both the sauces and the tenderized meats of the kitchen.

But you will find in me no quality of any worth,

Unless your bowels have been rattled by my gleaming marrow.

Black pepper (piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the Piperaceae botanical family, cultivated for its fruit, which is the world’s most traded spice and seasoning. When dried, the fruit is known as a peppercorn. Peppercorns, and the ground pepper derived from them, may be described as black (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green (dried unripe fruit), and white (ripe fruit seeds).

Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity for both its flavor and for its believed medicinal properties. Black pepper is one of the most common spices added to cuisines around the world. The spiciness of black pepper is due to piperine, a chemical not to be equated with the capsaicin ingredient of chili peppers.

The word pepper has its roots in the Dravidian word for long pepper, pippali. Ancient Greek and Latin turned pippali into the Greek peperi and then into the Latin piper. Today’s word pepper derives more directly from the Old English pipor.

White pepper is most often used in Chinese dishes for its subtle flavor and presence. When black pepper is used, its earthy presence defines the dish, as in this superb Chinese stir-fry, a perfect marriage of gleaming shrimp, coarse black pepper, and the heady aroma of garlic!

Black Pepper Shrimp

(2 servings)


12 large shrimp with head and shell on

2 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp coarsely ground or crushed black pepper

1 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp water



Remove the spiny parts of the shrimp heads. Devein the shrimp, cutting open one or two segments of the shell. Make a shallow slit with a paring knife, and lift out the vein with the tip of the knife or fingers.

Heat a wok or skillet over high heat until very hot. Add a drizzle of oil. Toss in the shrimp and stir-fry until pink, about a minute and a half. Transfer to a plate. Heat the tablespoon of oil in the same wok over high heat. Add garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Return shrimp to the wok, together with black pepper, salt, and rice vinegar. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the water, and continue to toss until most of the liquid has evaporated—maximum 1 minute.

Serve the shrimp while piping hot with cooked white rice.


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