In a nut shell
The nutmeg's a favourite with chefs around the world and is used in everything from béchamel sauce to biryani, says Rahul Verma
Nutmeg scented chicken chaanp
While surfing the Internet the other day, I came across a picture of a nutmeg tree. The camera had focused on the greenish-brown fruit of the tree, and just by looking at it, I was transported by its aroma. Did the little nut know that it was a prime ingredient in both Western and eastern cuisine?
I can't really speak for the nutmeg, but to my mind it's a spice that deserves a toast. Some dishes — the biryani, for example — just cannot be cooked without a bit of nutmeg in it. It gives the food a musky aroma, which enhances the taste. And from meat curries to souffls to eggnogs, our dishes and drinks are that much richer because of good old nutmeg.
The nutmeg tree — called Myristica fragrans — came to India with the colonisers. It grows abundantly in Indonesia and is used in many Southeast Asian dishes, including an Indonesian meat stew called semur.
Nutmeg and mace, as we all know, come from the same tree. Nutmeg is the seed of the nutmeg fruit, while mace is the orange and lacy membrane that covers it. I use the nutmeg often while cooking. It goes into the biryani, of course, and sometimes I put a wee bit of nutmeg in my kormas too. Indeed, some of our curries won't taste the same without a bit of grated nutmeg in it.
I asked Nishant Chaubey, the executive sous chef of Dusit Devarana New Delhi, what he thought of the spice. "The taste is very earthy and it has a fruity texture that's very nice. Nutmegs enhance the taste of a sauce in Western cuisine and are very much a part of Indian dishes too," he says.
The chef is right — what is particularly interesting about nutmeg is the fact that it's seen both as a Western and eastern spice. In the West, nutmeg is used to flavour the classic bchamel sauce as well as in a host of desserts. It's a part of the everyday eggnog, and is used in mulled wine too. Chef Chaubey adds nutmeg to his goat cheese ravioli cooked in a white wine sauce as well as his raan served with saffron rice. It's there in his twice-baked cheese souffl and nutmeg scented chaanp as well.
Clearly, the nutmeg knows no borders. It figures in many Southeast Asian dishes, and surprisingly in a few far eastern recipes too. "We use it for okonomoyaki — which is a delicate Japanese dish with sashimi cut tuna, octopus, calamari and other seafood. Nutmeg is used to enhance the flavours," Chaubey says.
I talked to a few other leading chefs and found that they used the nutmeg rather innovatively. Sujan Mukherjee, the executive chef of Taj Bengal, likes the taste of nutmeg in his kundan kalia — a meat dish cooked with browned onions, cashew nut paste and yoghurt. The dish is finally topped with a pinch of saffron and nutmeg.
Pranay Kumar Singh, the executive sous chef of Swisstel in Calcutta, puts nutmeg in his fondue, and cooks a mean spinach with lemon rind and a bit of grated nutmeg. "It has a unique flavour," says chef Pranay.
So the nutmeg, as you can see, can transcend cuisines. But users of nutmeg need to remember that the spice has to be used in small quantities. It's not just because an overdose can kill the taste. It's also because nutmeg, taken in wrong quantities, can be hallucinogenic. Don't say you were not warned!
Rum and Nutmeg Glazed Raan with Saffron Khichdi (serves 8 -10)
1-1.2kg baby lamb 5g nutmeg powder 5g chaat masala 60ml cooking oil 10g garlic paste 10g ginger paste 30ml lemon juice 240ml malt vinegar 10g red chilli powder 120ml rum
For saffron khichdi:
700g Basmati rice, soaked for 30 minutes 1g saffron cup milk 250g beaten yogurt 50ml lemon juice 2 cardamom pods, mace and bay leaf 50g coriander leaves 50g mint leaves 100g ghee
Prick the lamb leg all over with a fork. Marinate the leg with salt, red chilli powder, ginger and garlic paste, nutmeg, rum, lemon juice and malt vinegar. Set aside for 2 hours. Bake in a tray in an oven at 300F for two hours. Turn the leg at least two or three times so that it cooks evenly. Collect the drippings in a saucepan. Reduce that into half and keep for glazing. Before serving, sear the leg on high flame.
For the khichdi, soak the saffron in milk for 15 minutes. Stir in half the yogurt, lemon juice, coriander leaves and mint leaves. Keep aside. Heat the ghee in a large pan. Add cardamoms, bay leaves, rice and salt. Add water and let it boil. When the rice is three-quarters cooked, take off the heat and drain it well. Layer the top with the saffron-yogurt mix. Seal with aluminium foil and cook on low heat till the rice is done. Sprinkle chaat masala and serve hot with the glazed lamb.