In medieval Europe, it seemed like everyone wanted to be a pepper (or at least have a jarful). Back then, the spice was as valuable as gold, and someone who lacked pepper was considered to be poor.
Black pepper was valued for two main reasons. One, it helped preserve foods in the pre-refrigeration era. And two, the long distance it traveled to get to European kitchens made it pricey.
The pepper plant, Piper nigrum, comes from the Malabar area on the coast of south India, in the modern state of Kerala. Locals have used it to spice up food for thousands of years, and they’ve exported pepper since probably the 4th century B.C. The spice trading routes were first monopolized by the Arabs, then Venetians, then the Portuguese, and finally the British, all of which kept pepper prices high.
Pepper plants have also grown in Indonesia and Malaysia for centuries. In the 20th century, pepper production was started in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, and Brazil. Today, India and Indonesia are the world’s pepper powerhouses.