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The nutmeg, which takes 20 years to become a fully fruiting tree, originates from the Banda islands in the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia, and from very early times was exported to Europe via India. In the early 19th century the cultivation of nutmeg spread to other parts of the world, including India, Malaysia – mainly on the island of Penang – and the Caribbean.

Nutmeg pickle and preserves

Nutmeg pickle and preserves
Photo by Taufiq Wan

In Europe nutmeg is normally used in the form of a spicy powder grated from the nut, added to sweet and savoury dishes ranging from vegetables to cakes, biscuits and doughnuts, and drinks like mulled wine and eggnog. In Malaysia and Indonesia, fine slices of the outer nutmeg fruit wall are crystallised and coated with sugar and usually eaten as a snack. Malay nutmeg pickle or jeruk buah pala has a sweet-sour flavour much sought after by pregnant women. The mace, a lacy reddish web covering the nut, is also used as a spice.

In Malay tradition, the nutmeg has many medicinal properties, and a bottle of nutmeg oil is still kept in many households. It is rubbed on the stomach to dispel wind and for the relief of stomach aches, applied on the forehead for headaches, and it is also said to help babies to sleep. Ointment made from nutmeg oil is widely used in Malaysia for the relief of muscle pains. 

Fadhil Omar, a masseur and now sports science consultant to athletes in Malaysia, uses nutmeg oil for sports injuries as well as on stroke patients. “Nutmeg oil used to be very expensive and was only used to treat members of royal families.  I spent three months in India studying the use of nutmeg.  It is certainly good for muscle cramps and stiffness of joints,” said Fadhil, who used to work with Chelsea Football Club.

The lure of the nutmeg is that its parts each have distinct and sometimes opposing qualities. One part is sleep-inducing (the oil) whilst another has the power to keep its imbiber awake (the seed); another part promotes appetite (the grated seed) whilst yet another serves as a cure for over-eating (pericarp).

Text by Nur Hannah Wan. Interview with Fadhil Omar, 12 December 2010

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