Everybody's favourite spice

BENEFICIAL SPICE Nutmeg oil is a traditional remedy for toothache and joint pains photo: k ananthan

BENEFICIAL SPICE Nutmeg oil is a traditional remedy for toothache and joint pains photo: k ananthan  

Nutmeg is native to the Banda Islands of the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia, but the West Indies is now the largest producers of this spice. The large, evergreen nutmeg tree produces two spices: nutmeg, the seed kernel inside the fruit, and mace - the crimson network of tissue on the kernel.

Vasco da Gama claimed the Moluccas for Portugal in 1512 AD. The Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, tried their best to restrict the spice trees to the islands they controlled, but the French managed to smuggle nutmeg to the East Indies and the Caribbean. The English took over the Moluccas in 1796 AD.

Nutmeg oil was an aphrodisiac in the Middle Ages, when Arabs controlled most of the spice trade. The spice figures in north Indian garam masala mixtures and lamb dishes in Arabia.

The Dutch retain their obsessive love for nutmeg: they use it to flavour meat, soups, stews, sauces, cabbage and potatoes. In the rest of Europe, nutmeg is an ingredient in white sauce, cakes, pies, puddings, biscuits and stewed fruit. The Scots use it to modify the heavy taste of haggis, a traditional sausage often called the national dish of Scotland.

Essential oil obtained by the distillation of ground nutmeg is a vital ingredient in perfume and pharmaceutical industries. It is a flavouring agent in cola drinks and toothpastes. In fact, nutmeg is rumoured to be an ingredient in Coca Cola's secret formula for Coke.

Nutmeg is mixed with tobacco snuff in certain parts of southern India. Myristicin, a poison in nutmeg, gives the spice the reputation of a hallucinogen. Purkinje, the Czech physiologist who studied vision, described his own experiences of nutmeg-induced hallucinations. Prison inmates commonly chew the nuts for a high. Nutmeg poisoning can cause hallucinations, seizures, vomiting and even death. However, the dose for poisoning and hallucinogenic effects is many times greater than the amounts used in cooking.

Nutmeg is widely used as a traditional medicine in the Middle East and Asia. Like clove oil, nutmeg oil is a traditional remedy for toothache and joint pains. The seeds are a folk cure for diarrhoea, flatulent colic and dyspepsia. Ground nutmeg is a pleasant addition to drinks for convalescents.


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