When people think of Chinese cuisine, they often think of Sichuan peppercorn. However, Sichuan pepper is in no way related to the black peppercorn. While the Sichuan pepper is native to the south and central mountains of China, for many, many years China has been one of the largest consumers of black pepper. Whether due to its exotic nature, or because of its milder flavor (Sichuan pepper numbs the mouth, even in small quantities), the People’s Republic has consumed this Indian import for hundreds of years.
Historically, merchants from all over China traveled to far off countries, buying cartloads of pepper that they would sell for exorbitant prices upon returning to their home provinces. On the Indonesian island of Java, the port of Bantam developed the world’s largest pepper trade through these Chinese merchants. Marco Polo described this exchange during his visit to Java: “The territory is very rich, yielding pepper, nutmegs, galanga, cubebs, cloves, and all the richest of spices. Many merchants from Zai-tun [a Fujian Chinese province] and Manjii [a general term for Southern China] come and carry on a great and profitable traffic.”
Today, the peppercorn trade has shifted. Now Vietnam is the largest producer of the spice, with Indonesia taking third place behind India. India remains the largest consumer of its native spice and China ranks second behind them in domestic consumption. China is, however, the largest consumer of white pepper. It is most famously used in their hot and sour soup. Both types of pepper have been used for years in China as a “warming” medicine for the spleen, stomach, and small intestine. And though China has a large population, its massive pepper consumption is rooted in its long history with the spice.