Pepper and Salt: Not So Basic After All

I dined at a Sichuan Chinese place recently and was struck by the interesting properties of the dishes. Rather than blasting my mouth with simple, overwhelming spiciness (which I’ve always heard about in Sichuan cooking), the dishes presented a more nuanced, almost narcotic heat. It was definitely spicy, but much more than that – my mouth was tingling and even a bit numb (which I soon realized – after plucking one of the things from my kung pao and chewing it whole – was thanks to the eponymous brand of peppercorn used in the cuisine). The food was delicious and I’d go back in a heart beat, but I left more intrigued with the strange little Sichuan peppercorn than the excellent food. And, like with most things nowadays, I got to thinking about how I could turn this into a Daily Apple post.

Further research showed that the Sichuan peppercorn isn’t even really related to the black, green, and white peppercorns commonly used in Western cooking (it’s actually a dried fruit from a completely different family). Cooking with the Sichuan peppercorn seemed to be a fairly daunting culinary endeavor (one about which I’m not convinced I’m qualified to write definitively). I then remembered a couple recent reader requests for info on Primal salt and figured perhaps a shift of focus to salt and pepper might work out. From tingly tongues to obscure Western Chinese dried fruits to a post about salt and pepper: the journey is always a strange one, fraught with arbitrary stops and random dalliances, but I think the destination proves worthy in the end.

Did Grok use salt? Loren Cordain’s Paleo diet eschews all forms of salt, but I think our ancestors had as much a “salt tooth” as we do. Blood and meat have natural salts, and wild animals certainly seek out natural sources of salt. It’s why pet rabbits need salt licks, and why Japanese macaques soak their vegetables in salt water. Of course, like with honey, though Grok had a taste for salt, access was limited, so we should use moderate amounts. The bottom line, though, is that salt makes things taste great and, as long as we’re controlling the dosage rather than eating sodium-rich pre-packaged swill, using a bit is totally in line with a Primal life. The Primal Blueprint isn’t an exercise in asceticism, remember, and our tastebuds (all five varieties, not just sour and bitter) are there for a reason.

So what kind of salt is best? I’d go with the unprocessed stuff (surprise, surprise): sea salts, mineral salts, and rock salts. These unrefined salts contain tons of minerals, and subtly different flavor profiles and textures. Fleur de sel (hand-harvested French sea salt), for example, varies wildly in taste depending on which beach it comes from. But more than just improved taste and texture, unrefined sea/rock/mineral salts are far healthier than refined table salt and more in line with what Grok would have used. Table salt is pure sodium chloride (sometimes with iodine, too), which is a natural electrolyte. But sea salt contains all four types of electrolytes – sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium – making it better for cavemen on the go.

Fleur de Sel
Don’t cook with this stuff, or else it’ll just dissolve and taste like any basic salt. Use this expensive hand-harvested sea salt to top dishes and finish plates.

Celtic Grey Salt
This actually isn’t sea salt, but rather “pond salt” hauled out of salt ponds. It’s grey because of the clay lining the ponds, and it makes a good table salt, but not in a grinder or shaker – this stuff is moist, so pinch with your fingers.

Himalayan Pink Salt
This unrefined salt is mined in the Himalayas and usually sold in huge chunks with a grater. Grate fresh over salads or other dishes to add a nice pink salty sheen.

Hawaiian Alaea Red Sea Salt
This is actually sea salt mixed with volcanic clay. I’m not sure of any health benefits, but it sounds really cool. This stuff apparently doesn’t melt well, so use it to crust meat.

Smoked Sea Salt
There are several varieties of smoked sea salt, but they all offer the same benefit: an intense, smoky flavor perfect for dry rubs, barbecue, and steaks. This is usually pricy stuff, but a little bit goes a long way.

Pepper varieties are just as extensive. Without even going into the “pepper-like” varieties, you have black, white, green, pink, and red peppercorns to deal with.

Black Peppercorn
Black, white, and green pepper come from the same plant – the piper nigrum. Black peppercorns are derived from the unripe, green, whole fruits of the plant. After a quick soak in hot water, the cell walls are ruptured, causing the peppercorn to darken as it dries. The fruit surrounding the seed turns black and wrinkly after a few days, giving us the classic black peppercorn. Try the Tellicherry variety, from India’s Malabar Coast, for use in anything you’d usually put black pepper in – cheeses, steaks, eggs.

White Peppercorn
White pepper comes from just the seed; ripe peppercorns are soaked until the fruit falls off, and the naked seed is left to dry. Black pepper has a more complex flavor (given that you’re eating the skin and all its components), whereas white pepper is milder, and more aromatic. Use white pepper in lighter dishes (both color and flavor-wise) and seafood.

Green Peppercorn
Green peppercorns are unripe berries freeze-dried or treated with sulfur dioxide. Their flavor is fresh and lively, with a larger bouquet. Can also come brined. Good in sauces and with fish.

Pink/Peruvian Peppercorn
These come from a different plant altogether – the South American Baies rose plant – but they greatly resemble the classic peppercorns, albeit with milder heat and berrylike sweetness. These are apt to be pricey, but they’re perfect for salads and sweet dishes (luckily, we don’t eat too many sweets!).

Cubeb Peppercorn
These are similar to black peppercorns (and they even come from a related tree, the piper cubeba), only more pungent, with a bitterness that goes well with grass-fed meat and wild game. It’s also used in Moroccan cooking.

As for whether or not Grok used pepper, he probably generally did not. Black peppercorns are native to South India, so the stuff wasn’t available to Groks the world over. But that’s not to say it runs contrary to the Primal Blueprint; it enhances food with no nutritional detriment, making it the perfect addition to any Primal pantry. Just be sure to buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself as needed (pepper, once ground, loses potency and flavor within a month or so).

I hope I’ve enlightened, rather than confused you. Now get out there and buy some sea salt and peppercorns!

Brett Arnett, niznoz Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

A Visual Guide to Peppers

10 Ingredients that Will Make Your Meals Pop

The Truth on Truvia

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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