Nutmeg grew in what is now Indonesia for thousands of years before its two spice products (nutmeg and mace) became known in Europe. The Dutch East Indies controlled and transported this spice from the Moluccas, the Spice islands, a thousand miles west to Java; from Java to India; from India west to Constantinople or Alexandria. By the end of the twelfth century, these spices were in great demand in Europe, and the profits made were 2,000 percent. For centuries the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), had the monopoly on nutmeg and artificially controlled its market price by burning their nutmeg warehouses in Amsterdam.
Mace (javitri) and nutmeg (jaiphal) are sister spices. Both are distinctly different spices from a single fruit of the same evergreen, aromatic nutmeg tree. Mace is the dried reticulated aril (outgrowth or lacy red membrane surrounding the seed) of nutmeg, the seed of the fruit. At maturity, the fruit splits open to reveal a dark brown nut covered by a clawlike crimson aril or fleshy seed covering. When the aril is dried, it becomes a spice called mace. When the nut is cracked, it yields a large kernel called nutmeg.
The flavor of mace is similar to that of nutmeg but more refined and may be used as a substitute. In the West, both are generally classified as baking spices. Mace and nutmeg are best used in combination with anise, bay leaf, black pepper, curry leaf, cardamom, caraway, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, green and red chili, marjoram, mint, mustard seed, onion, oregano, poppy seed, saffron, sage, thyme, and/or turmeric to season curries, rice, biryanis, appetizers, kebabs, and vegetables. In India, mace is used more as a drug than as a condiment because of its invaluable medicinal properties. Nutmeg is considered a natural astringent substance that helps to tighten and firm tissues, organs, and skin and rejuvenates the body.
Garam masala literally means a mixture of “hot spices” and is composed of black peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek seeds. To obtain the best flavor, garam masala must always be roasted for 2-3 minutes on a small, hot skillet over medium heat. Garam masala is used by itself or generally in combination with coriander, cumin, and turmeric to prepare a quick curry. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, or walnuts are also used in combination with garam masala and other spices to create seductive, subtle, delicate flavors and textures in a dish.
Remember to always sauté garlic, ginger, and onions in hot oil until they turn soft or golden brown before adding the spices, curry powder, sauce, or paste. Hot oil has an extraordinary ability to extract and retain aroma, essence, and flavor of spices and herbs. This process is performed either at the beginning of cooking a dish, or at the end, according to the directions of the recipe.
Spices are strong and must always be used in small quantities, correct measurements, and precise combinations to get the desired flavor. Some spices are more pungent and powerful than others. Always use a level teaspoonful of ground spices (never heaped). Excessive use of green or red chilies will ruin almost any curry.
Mughal-Style Garam Masala (Mughalai Garam Masala)
Makes 1 cup
1 teaspoon black cumin seeds
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 bay leaves
6 black cardamom pods, seeds removed and pods discarded
12 green cardamom pods, seeds removed and pods discarded
½ cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground mace
½ teaspoon dry ginger
½ teaspoon crushed saffron threads
Heat a small skillet over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and add the spices. Stir constantly with a spatula for 3-4 minutes until the spices change color to a darker shade and release their distinct aromas. Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight container. Use when needed to season curries and vegetables.
- All the spices and herbs utilized in Indian cuisine are healthy because they are major sources of vitamins and minerals needed to preserve human life
- Magic of curry is in the blending and sautéing of spices (masala)
- Legume and bean dishes are always seasoned with asafoetida, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, onion, and turmeric to reduce gas and make food light to digest
- Vegetables always need coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, onion, and turmeric
- Certain spices such as bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, chili pepper, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, onion, and turmeric work well together for meat and vegetable curries.
- Simple tools and utensils are used
- Many of these spices are available at your local grocery store
- Being on friendlier terms with your stomach serves you well
Check out my cookbooks Feast of India: A Legacy of Recipes and Fables (1991, 2015) and India’s Unsurpassed Cuisine: The Art of Indian Curry Cooking (Editor’s Choice, 2016) at http://www.feastofindia.net.