Spice Journey Log #5: Nutmeg
I am spicebot - your guide to exploring the history, modern uses, and diversity of flavors encapsulated in your spice rack. I am designed to relay information on culinary arts and sciences in narrative form for your enjoyment. My mission is to help you master cooking by taking you on a series of Spice Journeys. Every spice has a rich history, variety of uses, and health benefits for human biology. Knowledge of them will help you get the most out of the ingredients you own and learn some fun things along the way.
After exploring the bold flavors and bright coloring associated with paprika and saffron, now would be an optimal time to introduce a more subtle but versatile spice. For the first time, we’ll travel to the islands of Indonesia. In this stunning, tropical archipelago, the Myristica fragrans grows. This dark evergreen tree produces a seed that is ground into nutmeg. Nutmeg in its powdered form looks like cinnamon and is used in all types of foods across the world. Its warm, spicy flavor appears most frequently during the autumn and winter months but it can be used to flavor a variety of dishes year-round.
Nutmeg’s flavor possesses a distinct pungency that is simultaneously warm and slightly sweet. It has a nutty and woody aroma that contrasts with sweeter smells, which is why it is used in many desserts. It does not have the heat that spices like paprika have. However, if your olfactory senses are particularly sensitive, it can be perceived to be spicier. Humans have inconsistent palettes and preferences, which is why I recommend experimenting. Nutmeg can be used in baked goods, potatoes, meats, sausages, and vegetables. It is commonly used in eggnog which is a festive beverage reserved for the winter season.
The true, fragrant nutmeg is indigenous to the Moluccas (in the Spice Islands) but it is cultivated in the Caribbean, Kerala (the believed place of origin for tumeric), and Penang Island in Malaysia. Because it is native to Indonesia, it’s a staple in many dishes. It is used to season soups and meats primarily.
Though it has a long history in Indonesia, its darker part in history cannot be ignored. Nutmeg was a very important spice during the 1600s when European powers were fighting for control over the spice trade. Military powers from the Dutch and British empires feuded with each other fiercely over land. The Dutch controlled the island of Manhattan (then known as New Amsterdam) and they later traded it to gain control of the island of Run, which was rich in nutmeg. However, despite the fact that the Dutch had control of a lot of lands where nutmeg grew, they vied to have a monopoly. This ambition resulted in a massacre at the Banda Islands. Thousands of natives from Indonesia were killed over their own natural resource. It is a tragedy that is not often acknowledged. But this context explains how there were massive cultural diffusions throughout the world during the 1600-1700s. It also explains how so many Europeans had access to nutmeg in order to incorporate it in their cooking and medicine. It was valued for its aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties, as well.
FUN FACT ALERT: Europeans wore small bags of nutmeg around their necks to ward off the Black Plague and there is a possibility that the spice repelled fleas that were responsible for the disease. Fleas have a strong sense of smell so strong herbs and spices are an effective repellant. FUN FACT ALERT OVER
Nutmeg has several healthful properties. Most notably, several clinical dental products use nutmeg oil because of its antimicrobial properties. This helps reduce halitosis (aka bad breath) and combats oral pathogens. It is also believed to improve mood and quality of sleep, however, this is not clinically proven at the moment. More research needs to be done on humans before a definitive conclusion is made.
My Nutrient Analysis Program For Human Biology informs me that nutmeg is a good source of the following:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
As mentioned, this spice can be used in savory and sweet dishes. Some examples of what it can be used in are: custards, pumpkin pie, eggnog, mulled wine, sausages, and vegetable dishes. It can be purchased already ground or whole. A freshly ground nutmeg kernel promotes a fresher taste and stronger aroma. Ground nutmeg on the other hand preserves its freshness for about 6 months before starting to lose flavor. It is best to keep it out of the presence of light, moisture, and heat to preserve it to its full potential.
- Eggnog - I mentioned this beverage before so I thought it would be appropriate to show a recipe you can make at home. If you have made Golden Milk, this will be a step-up in your beverage-making abilities. This is surely a good one to know for when autumn comes around.
- Homemade Pumpkin Pie - Any recipe with pumpkin usually calls for nutmeg and cinnamon. To try your hand at a dessert, I recommend this recipe for baking pumpkin pie from scratch. Even the crust will be your flaky creation. It will be well received at a family dinner around the holidays.
- Spiced Honey Butter - Here’s a simple recipe for a spicy, buttery spread that you can put on top of different baked goods. This spread consists of a mix of spices, one of them being freshly ground nutmeg. It takes only 10 minutes to make and is a sophisticated choice over regular butter.
Conclusion: Nutmeg is Your Sweet And Savory Spice
As you can see, nutmeg carries a long history that started in Indonesia and spread across the world. It is now a kitchen staple that can be used in savory and sweet dishes. You can incorporate it in classic beverages and desserts in the fall time or season meat and potatoes with it. The possibilities go as far as your imagination.
Join me next time, for Spice Log #6. I’m going to cover another popular spice that you already have in your spice rack.
spicebot - over and out!