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What’s nutty about nutmeg?

A pinch of grated nutmeg can make a world of difference to Apple Pie or Plum Pudding, or the Indian sweets Puran Poli or Shrikhand or better still the refreshing beverage Piyush. It’s not just the desserts or sweets that can be flavoured with this spice. There are umpteen meat and vegetable dishes that can be made exotic with just a dash of nutmeg. What is so special about this spice?

What is about nutmeg?

Why it is called nutmeg is perhaps because it is the hard nut like centre of the fruit of the nutmeg plant (Myristica fragrans) which is ensconced in a web of fibres that is bright red when ripe and amber-yellow when dry. This fibre mesh is called mace, which is treated as a separate spice. Nutmeg is called jaiphal and mace is known as javitri in Hindi.

Does nutmeg and mace have the same flavour? Not exactly. Both spices have a warm, sweet taste, but mace is slightly more pungent in flavour and is slightly bitter. So, the first taste is a bit like orange peel which is then replaced with the complex spiciness of nutmeg and here is when you can sense the similarity between the two spices.

In that case can nutmeg and mace be interchanged? That is to say if the recipe suggests nutmeg, can mace be added instead? Not really. Mace goes better with meat or savoury preparations whereas the woody sweetness of nutmeg suits desserts and beverages better. When nutmeg is added to foods that are bland and have no particular flavour, it gives it a special kick without being overpowering.

Its history

With a history rooted deep into the distant past, the origins of nutmeg can be traced to the Moluccas. India was introduced to nutmeg by the British somewhere towards the end of the 19th century.

Nutmeg is a spreading, evergreen and unisexual tree. It grows particularly well in moist and fertile soils. In India, Kerala and Karnataka are home to nutmeg plantations. It is harvested between July and September and marketed between October and December.

There is an interesting story that goes somewhat like this: the Romans burnt piles of nutmeg on their city streets when the English King Henry VI visited Rome. These bonfires gave the city a sweet, welcoming aroma and at the same time demonstrated their extravagant wealth. Romans also used nutmeg to preserve meat and wine because the spice helped to slow the oxidation process.

What are its nutrients?

Though some sources state that ground nutmeg is rich in nutrients, I have to reveal that these values are based on a 100-gram portion. The problem is that 100 grams equals 45 teaspoons of ground nutmeg. Considering that because of its potency, only a small amount is used to flavour most dishes, you would hardly consume much in a single serving. One teaspoon of ground nutmeg has 12 calories and 0.8 grams of fat. It also has 1.08 grams of total carbohydrates, which includes 0.6 grams of sugar. It also has 0.5 grams of fiber, 0.06 milligrams of manganese and 0.07 milligrams of iron. Even though it contains B vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, one teaspoon of the spice has only 1 to 3.5 percent of the daily intake of these nutrients.

It’s medicinal too

It is not just exotic flavour that this spice imparts to food, but it also has some medicinal properties. In the ancient times when no modern medicines were available, it was the herbal remedies that people turned to for relief. Just a pinch of nutmeg was enough to relieve flatulence, diarrhoea and nausea. It is also a mild sedative which is why it is given in small doses. In larger doses it can cause hallucinations. Nutmeg can also be used to relieve bronchial disorders, rheumatism and also digestive, liver and skin complaints. It is also used in perfumery, soaps and shampoos.

Storage

Nutmeg should be stored under cool, dry conditions. That is because excessive heat robs them of flavour and dampness tends to cake them. Store them in airtight containers.

Culinary uses

Nutmeg and mace are used in soups and in egg, fish, chicken, cheese, root vegetable dishes.
They are also used in bakery items like biscuits, cookies, puddings, pastries, fruit salads, milk drinks, etc. The oily forms of nutmeg and mace are used in meat seasonings, soft drinks and pharmaceuticals which include cough mixtures.