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  • Writer's pictureGuy Shababo

Black Pepper and Stuff like That

It all started from a random question - how expensive was Black pepper in early Chosŏn? These kind of questions require some ingenuity. Throughout most of Chosŏn commerce was sporadic at best, and mostly based on barter, which means that one cannot simply look for the cost of black pepper in the market.

Store bought black pepper is often sold in a metal tin box in Korea.
Store bought black pepper.

I started by looking at the sillok, where one entry caught my eyes. A record from 1456, from the reign of King Sejo states that:

命左承旨韓明澮, 問安于明使, 各贈蘇木五百斤、胡椒一㪷、狐皮四十張、熊皮四張。
[The King] ordered the second royal secretary (左承旨) Han Myŏng-hoe 韓明澮 (1415-1487; Pen name apkujŏng 狎鷗亭) to pay respect to the Ming envoys and give each 500 kŭn of Sappan wood, one tu of black pepper, 40 fox pelts and four bear pelts.

An odd collection, but one that makes sense. Sappan wood for example, was used to create a bright red luxurious dye and was also a useful materia medica: It's bright red color was associated with blood and bleeding. What seems odd here is the character tu 㪷. It resembles the character 斗 with the added radical 豆, indicating that it was used to measure grains and legumes. There is a similar character gok 斛, that seems to be another measuring unit. This way or another, if it functions as the normal tu 斗, it indicates a volume measure of 10 Sŭng 升, roughly 18 liters. The character is quite rare in the sillok and other documents (i.e., the sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi and the pibyŏnsadŭngnok). It appears some 16 times, particularly around the reign of Sejo and Sŏngjong, with a couple of odd references later on.

If this is a typical amount, 18 liters of black pepper are roughly 10 kg of pepper, quite a lot in premodern terminology. In 2008 Paul Freedman compared the price of spices with workmen wages to evaluate their equivalent cost in today's terms. He figures that a pound of pepper cost roughly the equivalent of 8.59 USD in 2008, which will be the 2024 equivalent of 12.54 USD, or 27.64 USD for one kilogram of black pepper. Spices were and remained relatively expensive food items items, and today's price in the US stands on 5.54 USD for one kilogram of black pepper.

Korea imported black pepper mostly through indirect routes, which means that it was quite expensive and rare commodity. This explains also the choice of giving it to envoys and as part of the tribute to China. In the mid Koryŏ period, Yi Illo (李仁老, 1152~1220) writes that it was used mainly as a trading goods with the Southern Empire. The Japanese themselves obtained pepper through their trade route with South East Asian, the so called namman or "Southern Barbarians". The same was true for Ryukyu.

 In different occasions the sillok mentions that the Japanese gave as tribute or presents black pepper. A sillok entry of 1418 states that:

Governor 太守 of Chikuzen Province 筑前州 in Japan, Ichiki (Ōkura) Iechika 藏親家, dispatched an emissary to present the NNKing with 200 geun of sappan wood, 100 kŭn of alum, 300 kŭn of sulfur, ten kŭn of cinnamon, five kŭn of black pepper, two kŭn of aloeswood, fifty kŭn of turmeric, twenty kŭn of white wax, ten kŭn of high-quality incense, and 100 kŭn of black plum wood.
The King bestowed upon the Japanese twenty p'il of black fine hemp cloth and 120 p'il of cotton cloth.

Since one kŭn 斤 is estimated at 600 gr, five kŭn would be 3 kg of black pepper. In fact, most of early Chosŏn's black pepper came this way. This is by no means an equal trade. So, how much pepper did they have? A discussion from 1483, discussing the heavy demands from the Chinese envoys, states that many of the items that the envoys ask (ginseng, tiger skin, yellow wax) are only stored in small quantities, but that of black pepper they have 700 paek 石 or 126,000 liters.

Some level of commerce in pepper existed of course: It was an easy commodity to transfer in small quantities and therefore lucrative business for envoys. However it seems that it was rarely used as such, and mostly for medical purposes. We can learn something on the unusual value of pepper from this two unrelated stories.

The first is the story of the governor of Wonju, one Yi Pan (李蟠), whose daughter was named Hocho or "Pepper" (胡椒, 李蟠妾女子也). The fact that a girl was named "Pepper" is enough to indicate the rare value of the spice.

The second incident involves an incident with Hideyosh's envoys, a little before the war. In a banquet, the Hideyoshi's envoy named Kyul Kanggwang 橘康廣 (The Korean reading of the name Yasuhiro) scattered pepper on the mat, upon which the kisaeng and the servants all rushed to fight each other for the pepper, and made a horrible mess.

It is only during the nineteenth century that we see black pepper becoming common enough to appear in recipes. In the 1854 ŭmbŏp (饌法), a recipe book created by one mrs. Yoon for her granddaughter, we see a recipe titled chapkwadasik (雜果茶食) calling for chestnuts, dried persimmon and jujube. The vegetables are chopped, marinated in honey and ginger juice, seasoned with black pepper and cinnamon a finally garnished with pine nut powder. Another recipe titled up’o tasik (牛脯茶食) , a dried meat tasik (traditional pressed sweet), is prepared with dried meat, oil, black pepper, and pine nuts.

By / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name), CC BY-SA 2.0,
Traditional Tasik. By / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name), CC BY-SA 2.0,

In earlier versions of this recipe we do not see pepper used. We do see other medicinal ingredients. For example in the 1795 wŏnhaeng ŭlmyo chŏngni ŭigwe (園幸乙卯整理儀軌), the comprehensive record of the 60th birthday celebration of Lady Hyegyŏng (Prince Sado's wife) describe the same dish. In that recipe we see ingredients such as candy sugar, cinnamon, dried ginger, dried plum powder, and the dried powder of Amomi Fructus (沙仁), often used in Traditional Medicine. However black pepper is not mentioned. It seems that in fifty years since that event, the trade allowed black pepper to finally become common.

One last thought about the rarity of black pepper in Korean cuisine. Of all the kings, we have quite a good guess on what Kojong ate, and it seems that although red pepper paste () was quite common we don't see black pepper among the ingredients.


The Veritable Records of the Chosŏm dynasty, Chosŏn Wangjo Sillok.

Sejong sillok, coronation year (1418), 12th month, 29th day.

세종실록 2권, 세종 즉위년 12월 29일 갑진 6번째기사

Sejong sillok, 2nd year (1456), 7th month, 15th day.

세조실록 4권, 세조 2년 7월 15일 임오 3번째기사 1456년 명 경태(景泰) 7년

Sejong sillok, 14th year (1483), 8th month, 21st day.

성종실록 157권, 성종 14년 8월 21일 신사 3번째기사 1483년 명 성화(成化) 19년

Sejong sillok, 11th year (1429), 7th month, 20th day.

세종실록 45권, 세종 11년 7월 20일 갑자 8번째기사 1429년 명 선덕(宣德) 4년

Sŏnju corrected sillok, 20th year (1587), 9th month, 1st day.

선조수정실록 21권, 선조 20년 9월 1일 정해 3번째기사 1587년 명 만력(萬曆) 15년

Dongwoo Kim. “Early Joseon Dynasty system and southern trade.” PhD diss., Pukyong National University, 2021.

Chung Hae-Kyung, Shin Dayeon, Chung Kyung Rhan, and Nariyah Woo. "Research on Joseon royal birthday cuisine memos." Journal of Ethnic Foods 5 No. 4 (2018): 292-310.

Oh, Soon-Duk. "A literature review on the types and cooking methods for Dasik during the Joseon Dynasty." Journal of the Korean Society of Food Culture 26.1 (2011): 39-52.

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