Most reach for nutmeg only at Christmas and know it only as an aromatic, brown spice. But there’s more to it than being a sprinkling or two.
The nutmeg is a fruit. It is found predominantly in the Caribbean and Asia, especially Indonesia that was once known as the Spice Islands. Spice was a valuable commodity and like oil today, nations protected their source and routes. It led to wars and resulted in colonisation in the “exotic East” such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The island of Penang is where you can still find fresh nutmeg and nutmeg farms. It is not exactly the prettiest looking fruit but it is certainly the most useful.
In Penang, pickled nutmeg is a popular snack sold. There’s also nutmeg cordial that makes a tasty drink, and nutmeg medicated oil that treats everything from headaches to colic (but not for babies).
After being told of a shop that served fresh nutmeg juice, I was quite determined to have a taste. Ironically, when I finally did get that drink, I didn’t realize I was drinking fresh nutmeg until much later! The taste of fresh nutmeg does take some getting used to. It tastes slightly bitter.The fresh nutmeg also leaves a slight numbing feeling to the lips and tongue, so those who have food allergies, best avoid this. The effect is probably due to the fact that some parts of the nutmeg (outer layers) are arsenic.
Do note that Penang sells nutmeg cordial so some places won’t serve freshly brewed nutmeg. For the fresh stuff in Penang’s Georgetown, l used to head for a red-sign coffee shop that sells Beef Noodles along Carnavon Street (directly opposite Armenian Street and the Georgetown Heritage Centre). That coffee shop has unfortunately closed and th beef noodle shop has moved a few shops away. This used to serve freshly made nutmeg juice.
Further updates when I track down another good spot!
The Kafe San Loo serves a great bowl of beef noodles – the soup is delicious and the chili dip, yum.
Order a Koay Teow (soft, broad, rice noodles) that soaks up the soup, and order a mix of beef slices and beef balls (they also serve tripe, tendon, and other bits that go well with the noodles, for those who love the extra bits and aren’t worried of their cholesterol. But I digress.
Pair the meal with a glass of Nutmeg and Sour Plum.
It will be a tall glass of cool, pale liquid. Some may find the taste strong and mildly bitter. It also numbs the tongue a little. But it’s good for digestion and counteracts high blood pressure some say.
At Chowrastra market, in central Georgetown, most shop for souvenirs and the usual edibles that say you’ve been to Penang – coffee, pickled nutmeg and bean-filled pastries (Tau Sar Peah). But keep a lookout for fresh nutmeg amidst the more popular item, dried nutmeg (about 10 Ringgit for a bag of a dozen).
Fortunately, we stumbled on one shop that had a box of fresh nutmeg next to another box of dried nutmeg, ready to spice a stew or hearty soup.
The nutmeg it turns out, is very versatile. The friendly shipowner shared that to enjoy fresh nutmeg juice, just grab about 2-3 fresh fruit, rinse well and chop off any stems. Then split the fruit to remove the seed (set seed aside).
To get your drink, blend skin and fruit, with a cup of water and a touch of sugar (more if you like it sweet or none, if au naturel is what you prefer and that means SOUR!) .
Refrigerate the fresh nutmeg and even when the skin is crinkly and wrinkly, it can still be juiced since it is still kinda fresh – and the stall owner split a fruit to prove it.
Further research on the nutmeg found that the fruit works well to keep gout at bay and is useful to counteract inflammation. Some research has shown that nutmeg can be poisonous if taken in large amounts. It can also be hallucigenic if taken in large amounts.
But one fresh nutmeg blended with an apple, a handful of berries and a 1/2 stick of celery makes a great breakfast drink. Peel off the skin is my suggestion as that makes the drink a little bitter. This is a lovely drink to start the day – maybe it’s the reputed hallucigenic elements!
The inside of the nutmeg is gorgeous – brown seed with red latticed skin. But it is not just pretty to look at.
The red skin is Mace, another spice that is popular for fruit cake and egg nog. Eaten raw, it packs a punch. It is like nibbling on ginger but with a gentler burn. It is a great natural remedy for trapped air (colic).
Alternatively, set aside the fresh, red mace and together with the brown seed, dry both over 10-14 days in the sun. Once dried, add the mace (now more orange than red) to hot water for a tea that’s great for settling the tummy especially when it’s bloated or colicky.
The dried nutmeg seed which is about the size of a chestnut, but more oval in shape, should have a nice deep brown and a sheen. Crack the brown seed cover for the dried nut which may appear a little dusty.
The nutmeg if well dried and ready to spice a meal should not have holes (it means it isn’t dried out) but with white almost floral-like patterns. Grate the nutmeg seed or drop slivers of the nut for a rich stew or chicken soup.
No other part of Malaysia has nutmeg. Travelers to Indonesia may find nutmeg in some areas. As for modern Singapore, it once teemed with nutmeg trees. Most were in a part of the island now known as Orchard Road. Now malls have replaced the nutmeg orchards and the only other reminder of the nutmegs once farmed in the area are sculptures scattered here and there.