salt pepper

They go together like, well, themselves. I’m talking about salt and pepper, of course. Sure, you can have one without the other. But there are reasons they are joined at the shaker.

Salt has been found nearly all over the world, and used since ancient times. While salt has tremendous value in our diet (when eaten in moderation), it’s also important in our food system (it preserves, kills pathogens and adds flavor). But what about pepper? It doesn’t get nearly the praise salt does, but there it sits—the yang to salt’s yin. Did you ever wonder why?

If you grew up in Southeast Asia, you might be more familiar with pepper’s benefits. While not a provider of necessary nutrients for our health like salt, pepper does have nutritional and medicinal benefits. It’s known to treat illnesses including heart disease, arthritis and a number of digestive issues. The latter, of course, makes it a good candidate for sitting on almost every table in America. And flavor wise, while salt draws out the inherent flavor of foods, pepper kicks it up, brightening and illuminating a meal.

According to Gizmodo, back in Roman days, long pepper (piper longum), which is hotter than today’s common black pepper (piper nigrum), was a staple in the Roman elites’ diets, once it was introduced to the empire by spice traders. It was favored for its mucus-reducing effects and its ability to boost virility. “Long pepper was so popular that other Roman castes began clamoring for similar but less pricey spices, which traders were more than happy to provide in the form of black pepper. And since black pepper grew further West than its longer cousin, the black variety was far easier and cheaper to import back to the Empire.”

Although we see them now as salt’s dark-haired sister, peppercorns are indeed spices. Beyond the Romans, they’ve been valued and traded for thousands of years. Throughout history and in most of the world, peppercorns were considered luxury items, not staple parts of a diet (like salt). After the Romans fell for peppercorns (and after the Roman empire itself, fell), Italians took control of the spice trade with the Persians. Pepper was still highly prized. It was even referred to as “Black Gold,” and traded around the world along with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger.

Fast forward to France when Louis XIV was the monarch from 1643 until his death in 1715. Unlike his fellow countrymen, who are known to be hearty eaters, Louis was a picky eater who did not favor too much seasoning in his food. “In fact, he banned outright the use of all eastern spices beyond salt, pepper, and parsley (deemed more wholesome and exquisite than ruddy cardamom [cilantro]),” explains Gizmodo. “Black pepper’s spiky, pungent flavor provided just enough kick to the King’s meals without overwhelming the taste of the underlying foods to satiate his needs.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Black pepper began to appear alongside salt on tables all throughout Europe and the Americas (although in Asia it’s still not as common as soy sauce and other condiments).

If you haven’t ever noticed anything more than pepper’s slight kick, try to taste the fruity and pungent notes next time you use it. It’s far more than just the finely ground stuff. There are many types of peppercorns, from black to white and even pink. Just like salts, the different colors offer slightly different flavors. And when buying pepper, always look for organic options (salt is a mineral and therefore not organic). Investing in a good quality pepper grinder can also improve your pepper experience. There is much more flavor and texture when using freshly ground pepper rather than the factory-milled stuff. You can also grind chunky mineral salts this way, too.

Happy seasoning!

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on Organic Authority

From Himalayan to the Sea: A Guide to Specialty Cooking Salt

More Than A Grain of Salt: The Importance of Sodium in the Diet

7 Popular Peppers: The Guide

Image: pay no mind