Back to the Roots!- Nutmeg
About the author:
Since I was a little girl I have been fascinated by nature! When I studied the biology behind it, I was even more impressed about how it is all linked and combined to build an incredible harmonized community of living creatures. Now it thrills me to write about my amazing discoveries and the learning of my life. I want to help all of us in coming back again to our ROOTS—our own earth, that gives us what we need when we treat it well. I wish you a good read! If you want to know more, you can reach out to me any time.
Welcome back to my column about specialty crops in Indonesia!
This time I would like to introduce you to this small little fruit that looks like a nut (and indeed is one) but not as we know and eat nuts! Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals with furrowed surfaces. The nutmegs are roughly egg-shaped, about 20 – 30 mm long and 15 – 18 mm wide, weighing 5–10 g (0.18–0.35 oz) dried.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
The true nutmeg originated in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Nutmegs are grown as seeds on the fragrant nutmeg tree. The seeds are ground to a powder that has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste we use to flavor many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sausages, sauces, vegetables and beverages, such as tea, milk, cocoa, and coffee.
It takes up to seven to nine years after planting before the first harvest can be done, but the trees reach full production only after twenty years. What a long and patient wait for us humans!
On the left you see the immature seed inside the fruit. It is white and soft, whereas the mature seed (below) is dark and dried out inside the shell. These fruits are picked and dried gradually in the sun over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat until the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. The shell is then broken with a wooden club and the nutmegs are picked out.
Interestingly, the flesh of the shell—shown right in the right hand—is also used for flavoring our meals, like soups and sauces, giving it a sharp taste. Sliced nutmeg fruit flesh is made into manisan (sweets), which is seasoned in sugary syrup liquid, or dry coated with sugar making an Indonesian dessert called manisan pala (see below ).
I am sure that almost all of you know this nut, when added as a dark ground powder on cauliflower, other cole or potato dishes, and processed meat products in traditional European cuisine. It is also commonly used in rice pudding. Nutmeg is a traditional ingredient in mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog. In Italian cooking, nutmeg is used as part of the stuffing for many regional meat-filled dumplings like tortellini, as well as for traditional meatloaf. Nutmeg is a common spice for pumpkin pie and in recipes for other winter squashes, such as baked acorn squash.
About the history
The earliest known usage of nutmeg is on the island of Pulau Ai around 3,500 years ago based on residue found on ceramic potshards. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the group of islands off of the Banda Islands (another name for the "Spice Islands") was the only location for the production of nutmeg in the world. The Portuguese, who landed first at these islands, discovered the spice, when guided via Java from Europe. During their one month stay, they bought and filled their ships with nutmeg and other tropical fruits from the Banda Islands. This was the way the nut was first introduced to Europe.
Nutmeg is known to have been a prized and costly spice in European medieval cuisine—but not only that! It also was used as a flavored medicinal and preservative agent.
It can also be made into an oil—usually colorless or light yellow—that smells and tastes of nutmeg. It is used as a natural food flavoring in baked goods, syrups, beverages and sweets. The essential oil is also used in the manufacturing of toothpaste and cough syrups.
Another interesting product is nutmeg butter, identified by its characteristic aroma. It is a creamy yellow, semi-solid butter which has been CO2 extracted from the nutmeg fruit. About 75% (by weight) of nutmeg butter is trimyristin, which can be turned into myristic acid, a 14-carbon fatty acid, which can be used as a replacement for cocoa butter. Its soft, crumbly pieces and low melting point allow it to be mixed with other fats like cottonseed oil or palm oil and has applications as an industrial lubricant. Having the beautiful, warm and spicy aroma of nutmeg, it can be added to fragrance formulations such as body butters, balms, and hair products.
Of course, I could fill pages with a lot more details about this small, but oh-so powerful nut! As for now, I will leave you with this introduction to a very old, well-known fruit, grown and cultivated in Indonesia with so classic and delicious a taste in our daily diets—whether it is for main dishes, desserts, baked goods or drinks!
[i] By Midori - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4470736
[ii] By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12800491