Native to Banda, a small group of 10 volcanic islands and one of the famous spice islands of the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia, the evergreen tree Myristic perfumes yields two of the most interesting spices used in the world: nutmeg and mace. The rich volcanic environment of the Banda Islands was the perfect habitat for the coveted Banda nut.
Nutmeg trees are temperamental and only grow in hot, humid weather and in fertile, well-drained soil that enjoys an annual rainfall of 150 cm. The Malays believed that nutmeg trees would not bear fruit if they did not hear the sea!
Like the ornamental Fabergé egg, nutmeg is an art object in the world of spices. Held like a precious pearl in a crimson filigree lace aril, nutmeg is actually the seed or kernel of a pulpy pale yellow fruit, while mace is the reddish coating of the seed or the delicately dried skin. . The word nutmeg derives from the Latin words nux (nut) and muscat (musk). An enigmatic spice, it has a warm and slightly sweet taste with a slight peppery heat and woody notes like cinnamon. Like saffron, mace colors food. The fruit resembles an apricot or plum which bursts when fully ripe, releasing the seed. The seed is dried for two months until it vibrates inside its shell, which is peeled.
Yet the story of the bloodstained nut is far more gruesome. Traded for thousands of years by land and sea long before the Christian era, its skyrocketing prices made it a sought-after commodity, sparking wars for the monopoly of its lucrative trade. Records suggest that nutmeg was discovered as early as the 1st century AD. The Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder mentions the existence of a tree that bore fruit in two flavors and the Persian physician Ibn Sina called it “Jansi Ban” or Banda nut. The Romans used grated nutmeg as a sachet of incense! After Arab, Persian and Chinese traders transported spices by sea and along the Silk Road through darkness and the Middle Ages to Egypt, Greece, Rome and Venice, European miser went to sea to get around them all.
Like cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg and mace also played their part in the spice war that led to European colonization, the slave trade, and the discovery of the New World. While it was the Portuguese who discovered the Spice Islands in 1512, the Dutch became the first Europeans to access them and consolidate their hegemony. The Dutch East India Company (VoC) ruled for over two centuries and literally went mad blocking its rivals. From export bans on nutmeg to soaking nutmeg shipments in lime to prevent sprouting anywhere overseas, to the secret guarding of island locations and the application of the death penalty to anyone who attempted to steal, plant or sell nutmeg.
To gain absolute control over nutmeg production in the East Indies, in 1621 the VoC, under the cold-blooded watch of Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen roped up Japanese mercenaries to slaughter all the local Orang Kaya (tribal chiefs) influential and elders) who revolted against them. Impaling their bodies on bamboo spikes in public view as a warning, they killed men from all the islands over the age of 15, reducing the population from 15,000 to 600. They enslaved several more. , exiled women and children and even slaughtered all the nutmeg trees of Run Island. to prevent the competing British from reclaiming this territory. The Anglo-Dutch wars raged for 60 years. Yet it was the little nutmeg that landed what has been dubbed “the millennium real estate deal” by Ian Burnet, author of East Indies. Who would imagine that a single seed would bring warring historic superpowers like the Dutch and the British to the table to make peace? By signing the Treaty of Breda in 1667 and the Treaty of Westminster in 1674, the Dutch ceded New Amsterdam, their swampy island colony and Manhattan fur trading center, New York (then called New Netherland) to the British, in exchange for a Band of Run Island (or Rhun) in the Banda Range. This former British colony was believed to be the only source of the best nutmeg in the world.
A tidy exchange for a commodity that could be bought for a song in Banda and increased by 32,000% of its price in Europe, thought the Dutch! They even burned nutmeg warehouses in Amsterdam to make the exotic spice artificially expensive in England! Yet fate caused Manhattan to become the city of all dreams and Run Island to run out of fame. In 1769, the supremacy of Dutch trade was shattered when nutmeg and other spices were smuggled out of Indonesia by a devious French horticulturalist, Pierre Poivre, who planted it in the French colony of Mauritius. The British caught it and cultivated it in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Grenada, Penang, Singapore and their other colonies, leaving the island of Run almost forgotten and as remote and inaccessible as it was almost four centuries earlier. . Today, the West Indies remain one of the main producers of nutmeg in the world and Grenada honors nutmeg on its national flag. In Banda, an ancient Cakalele war dance tells the bloody saga of colonial atrocities perpetrated in the name of nutmeg, to keep alive the memories of their murdered chiefs and ancestors. Some believe that the five dancers represent the Bandanese army which was reduced to five after the Dutch massacre. Their costume traces the nutmeg trade with a European headdress – bird of paradise on a copper helmet called a kapsete – a relic of the Portuguese, textiles from India and the golden flower clutched between their lips – symbolic of silent suffering .
Competition was fierce as nations kept nutmeg prices astronomical for a quick profit. While the Dutch were brutal, other traders were equally unscrupulous. American merchants filled replicas of polished wood into sacks of nutmeg before shipping them to England! Perhaps these deceptive practices in the nutmeg business have made it slang. To “muster someone” is to deceive a person, enough to make the victim look foolish. In football, it is the skillful kick of the ball through an opponent’s legs and recovered to the other side.
In India nutmeg is called jaïphal while the mass or javitri is used to flavor biryani, Mughlai dishes and desserts like kheer. In Sulawesi (Indonesia) and Malaysia, all the ripe, fleshy fruit is harvested, cut in half, sprinkled with palm sugar, and sun-dried for a few days until it slightly ferments. This Sulawesi candied pala manis (pala = nutmeg, manis = sweet) looks like ginger candy and is eaten as a snack. In the Banda Islands, the heritage of nutmeg continues in the form of a pinch of nutmeg in coffee, while the fruit is used to make candied candies, soup, and syrupy jam. Besides its culinary uses for taste, nutmeg was considered the answer to health problems ranging from gas to bubonic plague in the 16th century; the latter being sufficient reason to send ships in search of him. Nutmeg is also used in medicinal therapy to fight digestive problems, lower cholesterol and liver disease, sleep disturbances, and dental care (in toothpaste). Nutmeg oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve joint pain. Twin spices are found in cosmetics like face masks, body wash, hair and skin care for their exfoliating, depigmenting and hair growth properties. The scented flower is exported to Europe for use in cosmetics and to preserve corpses.
(The authors are Bangalore ‘willing’ travel / food writers and culinary consultants. They lead travel equipment / media customization solutions for the hospitality industry, have authored guidebooks and tabletop books. , have set up an award-winning restaurant and are featured as ‘Dude aur Deewani’ in a new digital food-based infotainment show. Follow their adventures on Instagram: @red_scarab or their Red Scarab Facebook page.)