Our last post on breakfasting (several times over) in the western Penang village of Balik Pulau elicited a few emails, all asking for more information about nutmeg juice.
As frequent visitors to Penang we have come to take nutmeg juice for granted. And given that nutmeg is grown elsewhere in the region, as well as in the Caribbean, it never occurred to us that its juice might be not also be consumed elsewhere. But cursory research suggests that just maybe Penang-ites are the only folks juicing the fruit.
Nutmeg is native to the Moluccas in Indonesia (also known as the 'spice islands'). The pale yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit encloses a brown seed -- this, after drying, is the spice we know as nutmeg' -- encased in an orange 'web' which, dried, is mace.
We might assume that the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) made its way from the Spice Islands to Penang, where it's grown in the west and northwest, on ships that plied southeast Asia's spice trade route (George Town was a major port on the route). But supposedly nutmeg and cloves were prised from the grip of the Dutch, who made Indonesia a colony and maintained a monopoly on these two precious spices, by a Frenchman named Pierre Poivre (yes, that's Peter Pepper). Poivre is said, after two failed attempts, to have gotten his hands on over a thousand rooted nutmeg and clove trees in 1770. He planted them on his estate on Mauritius and from there they spread. (This tale is from the excellent cookbook Where Flavor Was Born.)
Nutmeg was introduced to Penang by the British, who established George Town in 1786.
These days northern Sulawesi, Indonesia is the world's largest nutmeg exporter, supplying almost 75% of our nutmeg needs. But it seems there's no juicing happening on that Indonesian island. Instead, Sulawesians are converting the 'waste' fruit leftover from nutmeg and mace production into another export product: charcoal.
According to Culinaria's authoritive Southeast Asian Specialties nutmeg fruit "is either candied or made into preserves in its native land." In Cradle of Flavor James Oseland writes that during nutmeg's twice-a-year harvest cooks on Indonesia's Banda Islands make use of its fruit by adding it "to stews and curries for its acidity" and, finely slivered, to "the chile-hot sambal buah pala. It's also candied and used to make a jam called seleh pala". There's no mention at all of useage of the fruit in the Nutmeg entry in The Oxford Companion to Food (presumably this oversight will be remedied in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Southeast Asian Food, co-edited by Indonesian cookbook author Sri Owen), nor in Ian Hemphill's Spice Notes and Recipes.
Fresh "white" nutmeg juice, with a Chinese sour plum
On Penang fresh nutmeg fruits can be found in most wet markets. The fleshy fruit is sliced and made into a pickle (also available at most wet markets) but, most memorably, squeezed for juice. "White" nutmeg juice is light green-yellowish, tangy and almost grassy in taste, and it's often flavored with a Chinese sour plums. The juice is also boiled to a syrup and used in a much sweeter, brownish iced drink.
For a Westerner like myself who grew up associating the flavor of nutmeg with pumpkin pie and eggnog, tasting the dried seed's warm, mellow spiciness in a fresh, tart juice was, well, startling. But the weirdness dissipated quickly. It's a strange but really delightful beverage, one that I certainly would (and have) drive around an island for.
Given that nutmeg juice seems limited to Penang (chime in readers, I'm happy to be corrected here -- where else have you seen/drunk fresh nutmeg juice?), it seems almost criminal to visit the island and leave without trying the fresh stuff. Find it in coffee shops, more easily in the west of the island than in George Town.
Update Nov 8 2010: one of our Twitter followers reports that nutmeg juice is popular in the home of nutmeg, the Indonesian Molucca islands.