I've recently returned from a trip to Malaysia where I tasted some delicious street food and experienced some new and exciting flavours, as well as broadening my mind: lots to be gleaned: about food, culture, myself ... both good and bad, that's the beauty of travel, it can shock and delight in equal measure but it is never boring.
One of the places I visited was a Chinese owned nutmeg farm where I learnt a lot of interesting facts about this underrated spice, and myself. I don't really consider myself a raving feminist but I was surprised at how strongly I felt when I saw women in Malaysia completely covered from head to toe - even in the swimming pool! Enter the nutmeg: Basically, nutmeg is all about girl power and superiority, which quite frankly, is refreshing in a country where some women still enter their own house via a back door to the kitchen while the resident male has his own entrance at the front. I digress.
Nutmeg trees are both male and female, the female has one seed, the male has two, naturally. A nutmeg tree takes 5 years to flower and only then do you know if it is male or female. But here is the best part: the female tree is superior because it produces better fruit than the male. And it gets even better: females are self-perpetuating and don’t need males - amazing.
The fruit itself is so unpleasant and bitter when raw that no monkeys or insects will eat them, so all nutmeg can be declared organic.
There are three parts, and they are all used differently: the fruit of nutmeg is pickled by soaking it in brine then sugar syrup and it is delicious. Juice is also made from the fruit; the red mace which surrounds the nutmeg itself and this is dried for use in soups and tea for various ailments inc. flatulence; finally, the oil is used to help with arthritis, aches and pains, and a balm is made and used for headaches, insect bites, rather like tiger balm.
While Malaysians use ground nutmeg in curries, the Chinese don’t grate nutmeg, instead they add it whole to soups for long cooking with an intense depth of flavour.
As a child, I always remember the rice pudding with milk, nutmeg and generous knobs of butter that my father used to bake in a slow oven every Sunday evening – the ultimate comfort food. One of my favourite uses for nutmeg is in an omelette with mushrooms sautéed with lots of butter and crème fraîche.
Click here for a recipe for pumpkin rendang – a vegan take on a classic, where the nutmeg adds a gentle and reassuring warmth of spice.