What’s Up With That Food: Nutmeg

Paste uncovers the background of foods you've always wondered about

Food Features

We may sprinkle it absent-mindedly on eggnog or add it to cookies around the holidays, but nutmeg is powerful stuff. It’s why a little goes a long way, and why it spawned trade wars in the 17th century. Nutmeg is also a narcotic. Who knew this spice had such a dark and sordid history?

Type of Food: Seed

Name: Pala

Origins: Nutmeg is one of two spices—the other is mace—derived from several species of tree in the genus Myristica fragrans Houtt. Nutmeg is the dried seed of the plant; mace is the dried aril that surrounds the shell that encloses the seed. So when you grate a little knob of nutmeg, it’s the shelled, dried seed of the fruit. As the seed matures, the nutmeg kernel splits from the mace. (Mace is also often a spice that people are confounded by, but the Scots know to add both to haggis.)

Why/How Did We Start Eating It: Nutmeg is native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas, Indonesia, and is also found in the Caribbean, especially Granada. Historically, it was prized for its curative properties (anti-viral qualities, along with warding off the plague—no biggie) and for its myriad culinary uses. Arab and European traders had never seen or smelled the likes of it before. Nutmeg caused minor wars between the Dutch and the British, who were both trying to exploit the Banada Island’s nutmeg and mace crop for profit—when the European medical community claimed nutmeg offered protection against the plague, demand shot through the roof.

It also apparently can directly cause some contractions. “In the Middle Ages, it was used to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, and it is strong enough to stimulate menstruation,” says Scott Schreiber, a chiropractor, acupuncturist and clinical nutritionist in Newark, Del.

How It’s Used: Nutmeg has a number of uses, some of them rather subtle and somewhat undetectable. Around this time of year, it’s often used in baked goods like pies and cookies and sprinkled over a glass of eggnog. But this little shapeshifter goes way beyond holiday baking duty. Indian cuisine incorporates nutmeg in sweet and savory dishes, and nutmeg found its way in savory applications in the Middle East. In Europe, it’s used in soups, stews, eggs, and as a counterpoint to many rich dishes laden with dairy. Likewise, Italian filled pastas and dumplings such as tortelloni, ravioli, and gnocchi often get a dash of nutmeg. Gates Rickard of Bear in Boots Gastropub on Cape Cod, Mass. uses it “liberally in barbecue rubs, because it adds a nutty, floral note to meats.”

The red outer webbing, once dried, is the spice mace; the remaining large seed is nutmeg. Photo by Harvey Barrison CC BY-SA

Private chef Steph Celic of Brooklyn, New York likes how nutmeg is a bit of a chameleon when you cook with it. “When mixed with lemon zest, it brightens. Use it with smoky cumin and it warms the dish up. For the holidays, I sprinkle a decadent hot chocolate with nutmeg, and it adds a spicy, almost gingery note.” She also recommends trying it with braised or sautéed greens.

Avi Shemtov of the Boston food truck the Chubby Chickpea and author of The Single Guy Cookbook uses it in their shawarma. “Nutmeg is a really great bridge between savory and sweet. We marinade boneless chicken thighs in nutmeg, cayenne, cumin, garlic, salt, pepper and turmeric before roasting them. Delicious!” he says.

Chef Trish Tracey sings its praises, saying it’s far more versatile than most people give it credit for. She uses it in her butternut squash soup at Myriad Gastro Pub in San Francisco, but not in a way that you might think. “We use a nicely spiced ras al hanout as well, and the nutmeg in conjunction with the exotic spice blend makes for a really interesting butternut squash soup. Ras al hanout is a North African spice blend much like a curry or a garam masala. Each household has their own version. It has big bold flavor that adds heat, sweet and savory to a dish.”

Natalie Mathis, the Chef de Cuisine of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar in Dallas, Texas, balances it with lemon. “We use nutmeg in our buttermilk chess pie because it balances out the acidity from the lemon and has a different floral nuttiness when combined with the buttermilk.”

How it’s Purchased: It’s most common to encounter ground nutmeg, but you can also purchase nutmeg whole and grate it yourself, which is the method that most chefs and culinary professionals prefer, since the flavor is so much fresher and more pronounced. You can use a Microplane grater, but those traditional little metal nutmeg graters (which include a little cubby at the top to stash a nutmeg seed or two) still do a great job of the task.

Sensory Experience: Whole nutmegs are usually oval in shape with a ridged exterior. Nutmeg is slightly floral and nutty, offering warmth and complexity.

Nutrition and Other Benefits: Nutmeg contains manganese, along with antioxidants and disease-preventing phytochemicals. “It also has thiamin, folate and fiber,” says Tammi Hoerner, integrative nutrition health coach based in Colorado.

There’s a lot more potential, but it’s yet to be fully tapped. “While human studies are scarce, animal and test tube studies have found that nutmeg may help reduce cholesterol, fight leukemia cells, improve skin elasticity, and help with anxiety, depression, viral diarrhea and even low libido,” says California-basedi Melina Jampolis, M.D, P.N.S., president of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists and author of The Doctor on Demand Diet.

Hoerner also says its benefits translate to skin care products too, if you mix it with raw honey and use it as a facial scrub. “For a more moisturizing effect (great this time of year), mix it with coconut oil to make a paste. Both can help to improve the appearance of blackheads and scarring from acne,” says Hoerner.

The essential oil in nutmeg, when properly steam-distilled, is touted to help arthritis, fatigue and sore muscles, along with digestive issues such as nausea. In Ayurveda, nutmeg is often combined with warm milk as a sleep aid.

Trivia: An abstract called “The Use of Nutmeg as a Psychotropic Agent” concludes that “The use of nutmeg as a narcotic illustrates all three points: nutmeg is an obscure drug, causes many alarming symptoms, and brings about pleasant mental changes only in the proper psychological context. Yet nutmeg must be considered a narcotic not only because it can induce stupor but also because many persons now consume it deliberately to escape reality.”

There have been stories of prisons banning nutmeg from their kitchens because of this, but I’ve no way to know if that’s actually true. If you have ever read Naked Lunch by famous junkie William S. Burroughs, he says he’s only tried it once. Of course, we’re not talking about people sprinkling a little in a drink—we’re talking much higher quantities. And for even such a beloved spice, that’s a pretty tall order. As Julia Child once said on an episode of The French Chef, when seasoning with nutmeg, you want to use just enough, but “not so much that people say ‘Nutmeg!’.”

Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.

Main photo by Kate Ter Haar CC BY

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