This installment of our On the Spice Trail series might be subtitled: “Spices You Must Grind or Shave But Mustn’t Bite.” We bring you the inside story of two (and a half) wonderful, but lesser-known (at least in Western waters) spices that have medicinal as well as gustatory benefits. Both grow on trees, but while the clove is actually the flower of an evergreen tree, nutmegs are seeds (while the “half,” mace, comes from the outer coating of a nutmeg seed).
But what exactly is nutmeg? In nutmeg we actually have a two-for-one spice combo, both inside the fruit of the nutmeg tree: the red, web-like covering of the seed (technically called the aril) is dried and ground for the spice called mace. The hard seed itself, dried and then ground or shaved with a Microplane, becomes the spice nutmeg, to be used in cooking. The common nutmeg tree is indigenous to the Banda Islands, off of Indonesia, but has been cultivated throughout Southeast Asia for centuries, and other varietals exist elsewhere, in New Guinea and India, for example. But it is to the Indonesians that we must tip our hats, as even 17th century botanists, like Hendrik van Rheede, recorded that India was introduced to nutmeg by Indonesian traders.
Eating Nutmeg and Mace
For cooking purposes, Mace and Nutmeg are largely interchangeable, the difference in their taste very subtle: mace is a bit lighter, nutmeg somewhat sweeter. The decision about which to include in a recipe often comes down to aesthetics—mace turns dishes a soft saffron orange, whereas nutmeg is brown but has little effect on coloring. You’d be right to wonder about the nutmeg fruit, about which we hear very little. It does have some uses, for instance the chopped-up rind appears in one of the world’s weirdest desserts, ais kacang. This is sort of like an ice cream sundae, but one that flew in from another planet, and is not to everyone’s taste.
A feature of Penang cuisine, most popular in Singapore and Malaysia, it includes shaved ice topped with surprising ingredients that one associates with savory meals, not sweet: corn, red beans, agar agar cubes, aloe vera, rose water, basil seeds, peanuts and grass jelly, making for a Day-glo concoction. Nutmeg and mace both appear in sweet and savory dishes, primarily in Southeast Asian cuisines, though the Dutch connection to the region means that they made their way into European dishes, too. Topping potato with nutmeg, or even vegetables like beans, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower works nicely. It is a key ingredient to mulled wines, hot ciders and Christmas eggnog, and you can’t make Scottish haggis without it. In Italy it slips into tortellini, and in the U.S. into pumpkin pie or as a dusting on roasted butternut squash.
What are cloves?
Examine a hard, dry clove and you wouldn’t immediately think of it as a flower, but that’s just what cloves are, with buds that turn red when they are ready to be harvested. At closer glance, perhaps they do look like the unopened blossom of a flower. Cuisines the world over use clove in sweet and savory dishes, and a little goes a long way. The chemical, eugenol, is what gives them their mighty flavor. It is often paired with cumin in savory dishes, and cinnamon in sweet ones. What’s important is that you don’t want to eat them. Not that you couldn’t, but they are hard and the taste is simply too strong if you bite into one. They are best used in a brine or marinade, or combined with other herbs and spices in cheesecloth and then discarded before the meal.
History of cloves and nutmeg
Cloves are often associated with Indonesian cigarettes, in which tobacco and ground clove are combined to form an aromatic smoke. Though not normally associated with culinary delicacies, in a pinch ground clove can be used as an ant repellent, or as a painkiller (with the essential oil from cloves rubbed into a cavity to relieve toothache. They feature in Chinese medicine and are recorded as having been chewed by a Han Dynasty Chinese emperor in the 3rd century BC as a breath freshener. A terracotta pot from Syria, dating to 1721 BC, once contained cloves—evidence of a truly ancient trade, since cloves are indigenous to the Spice Islands (now called the Maluku Islands, off of Indonesia), and had to make their way, tortuously, to other climes. Sinbad the Sailor, in the Arabian Nights stories, was a trader in cloves, bringing them from India to Arabia. A story is told (likely apocryphal) that, in 1770, a Frenchman named Poivre stole seedlings from a tree on the Maluku Island of Ternate, which is the oldest clove tree in the world, around 400 years old (so old it has its own nickname, Afo). Poivre imported cloves to France and Zanzibar, which later became the world’s largest producer of the spice.
The stories of clove and nutmeg united in the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company tried to muscle their way into a monopoly of the spice trade. They succeeded in gaining a monopoly over nutmeg but, as Michael Krondl describes in his book, The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of Three Great Cities of Spice, unlike nutmeg and mace, which at the time grew only in the Bandas islands (adjacent to the Spice Islands), clove grew throughout the Spice Islands, and so it was logistical impossible to lock down trade in cloves to their company, exclusively. But clove was so valuable that its exportation was limited, much like the trade in oil—highly unusual for a naturally-growing spice.