What do quatre épices, pumpkin pie, sausages and béchamel all have in common? Nutmeg. This once-expensive commodity from the Spice Islands (part of modern-day Indonesia) became a prized New England flavoring, and for many the aroma still summons up fall in the American Northeast, with the bright oranges and reds of turning leaves. Connecticut was even nicknamed the Nutmeg State, perhaps because of its number of nutmeg peddlers. Some claim the spice is a hallucinogen — perhaps those were nutmeg pushers instead of peddlers — and it is used widely for culinary and medicinal purposes in its place of origin. In the U.S., the immigrant nutmeg is often married with native pumpkin to produce the classic American holiday pumpkin pie.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is endemic to the Banda Islands in Indonesia’s Molucca Province. When the fruit is ripe, it splits open to reveal a crimson red mesh, known as mace, surrounding the dark shell like a lacy wet net. Inside the shell resides the nutmeg seed. When dried, mace typically pales to the color of milky coffee, and has a more subtle flavor than the nutmeg seed.
Portuguese, and later Dutch, traders dominated the nutmeg trade until the 19th century. Today, the majority of the world’s supply of nutmeg (as much as 90 percent) is still produced in Indonesia (“East Indian” varieties), but since the early 19thcentury Grenada has become the second largest supplier (“West Indian” varieties). A smaller percentage comes from other Caribbean islands, India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. According to food-science writer Harold McGee, nutmeg and mace oils carry fresh pine, flowery, and citrus notes and are dominated by woody, warm and peppery flavors.
Nutmeg and mace are used in South Asian, Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines for a vast array of savory dishes. In the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, nutmeg is found in sweet dishes such as cakes, pies, cookies, and puddings as well as incorporated into spice mixtures for stews, curries and meats. Less well known is the pleasure of fresh nutmeg fruit juice. In a recent post in EatingAsia, Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman report that in Penang, Malaysia, where nutmeg fruits abound in the produce markets, their flesh is sliced and made into pickles, or squeezed for juice. The juice has a tangy, grass-like taste with a hint of mellow spiciness, and is often flavored with Chinese sour plums. The juice can also be boiled to a syrup and used in iced drinks.
Nutmeg oil is used to treat flu-like symptoms, according to Carl Van Gils and Paul Alan Cox, two ethnobotanists who gathered medicinal data from Banda Island herbal remedy vendors, midwives and healers and published their findings in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Such healers would commonly treat an aching stomach or head by rubbing it with nutmeg oil. A variation on the nutmeg-oil cure is made by mixing grated nutmeg seed with eucalyptus oil. According to indigenous healers, this relieves diarrhea. For a reprieve from rheumatism and limb and joint aches, grind nutmeg, ginger, citronella, and cloves with soaked raw rice to make an ointment. Local healers also prescribe nutmeg and mace in various combinations as a sedative for infants, children and adults.
Nutmeg oil is also acknowledged for its medicinal properties in the West, and has been included in various pharmaceutical formulations. In the early ’90s, three products with nutmeg oil as the active or predominant ingredient were released: Procter & Gamble’s non-drowsy and alcohol-free Vicks cough syrup; in Britain, Robinson-Healthcare Easy Breather Tissue to help clear congestion; and a pain-relieving ointment called Ramedica Herbal Wonder Balm that was marketed in the U.S. More recently, scientists reported in the Journal of Medicinal Foods that several chemical compounds extracted from nutmeg show strong antibacterial activity, suggesting that they have the potential to replace synthetic preservatives. In addition, mace shows particular effectiveness against Clostridium botulinum, the type of bacteria that causes botulism, as researcher Nobuji Nakatani reported in “Antioxidants and Antimicrobial Constituents of Herbs and Spices.” It seems that much wisdom lies in the lore of traditional cooks and healers who innovate in their kitchen “laboratories.”
For the nutmeg pumpkin ricotta pudding recipe below, don’t throw away the pumpkin seeds when you bake your pumpkin. Pumpkin seed oil apparently possesses compounds that may help diminish benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), an enlarged prostate. So save those seeds and add some spices for a savory-sweet snack (see the recipe below).
Nutmeg and Vanilla Infused Ricotta Pumpkin Pudding
For more details on how to pick a pumpkin bred for taste and flavor (not carving!), read farmer Terra Brockman’s recent article about how to choose a “Truly Great Pumpkin” for cooking.
Up to ½ cup whole milk
- Cut the pumpkin in half, remove seeds (set aside for making snacks, below), place the halves cut side down on parchment paper and bake at 350° F for 30 to 40 minutes, until flesh is soft. Remove, cool, and scoop out 1-1.5 cups of flesh.
- In a blender, place the roasted pumpkin flesh, ricotta, nutmeg, vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, ¼ cup of maple syrup (for sweeter pudding, add an additional ¼ cup of maple syrup), and optional spices, if desired.
- Blend for 10-20 seconds. If the mixture is too thick, add ¼ cup of milk (½ cup if you prefer a thinner pudding) and blend again.
- Pour into ramekins and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving.
- Garnish with mint leaves or fresh berries.
Pumpkin Seed Snacks
Yields 2 cups
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
- Place pumpkin seeds in a bowl, add oil and maple syrup, if using, and mix to coat the seeds.
- Blend all the dry ingredients together.
- Sprinkle the spice mixture over the seeds and mix.
- Spread seeds on a tray lined with parchment paper.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, remove from oven, cool, and snack.
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.
Photo: Ingredients for ricotta pumpkin pudding: pumpkin, nutmeg seed, vanilla bean, maple syrup and ricotta.
Credit: Sarah Khan