Sunday, April 11, 2010

Indonesian kitchen: Nutmeg in your pot

Who has never heard of nutmeg?

Merchants and adventurers sailing from the western hemisphere and seeking fortunes in the East once considered this spice one of the top commodities next to cloves.

But where does nutmeg actually come from? According to history books, the region of Maluku and the small island of Banda are places where the nutmeg trade began in times gone by.

People in the region regard the nutmeg tree and its fruit as one of the most beautiful and useful plants around. On opening the fruit, we can see the net-shaped fuli (mace), which has a blazing deep red-orange color. This not only serves as a flavor enhancer but can also be used as a very attractive decoration for dark-colored dishes such as semur (stew), which is usually prepared with the addition of sweet soy sauce.

Many different stews in Indonesian cuisine have a pinch of nutmeg or some mace in them to enhance the flavor. In fact, most Indonesian stews are of western culinary influence, such as semur, the name of which is derived from the word schmoren from the German word meaning "braising".

The Germans must have introduced their schmoren technique to the region via missionaries spreading Christianity in the area, or who went to the Netherlands and taught locals there how to make the German dish schmorbraten. From the Netherlands, the Dutch then took this dish to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Anyway, semur is now a well known dish in Indonesia, and some regions have specific regional varieties of it. In many cases, semur is flavored with a pinch of nutmeg. In most cases, semur varieties are made with a spice paste comprising shallots, garlic, pepper, sweet soy sauce and a pinch of nutmeg.

These ingredients are stir fried until they become aromatic.

After preparing these basic ground spices and soy sauce, the dish is easy to make. With its main ingredients ready it can be made in less than half an hour. The classic semur dish uses beef or chicken. And for those who like to experiment, semur can be prepared with tofu or vegetables such as eggplant (aubergine).

Semur Betawi from Jakarta (made with beef or buffalo meat) is one of the more famous examples, using shallots, garlic, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, ground pepper (black or white), ground cloves and semi-sweet soy sauce.

Whereas Semur Jawa from Central Java omits the cinnamon and only uses shallots, garlic, nutmeg, ground pepper, and whole cloves. The Semur Medan meanwhile, uses shallots, garlic, finely sliced red chili, ground pepper and nutmeg without cinnamon and cloves - and for the soy sauce, a semi-sweet, rather salty variety is used.

Want to taste an excellent semur dish made with mace? According to many people the Manado-style Smor Ikang (braised fish) has a very interesting spice mix.

Cut 500g clean freshwater fish into 2. Coat with 1 tsp salt. Cut 500g peeled potatoes into serving pieces. Fry the potato and fish alternately in 300ml cooking oil until done and brownish. Drain. Grind 4 shallots, 3 cloves garlic and 15g ginger. Stir fry in 2 tablespoons of cooking oil until aromatic. Add 3 whole mace, 5 whole cloves, and pour in 300 ml water. Let it come to the boil. Add 3 tablespoons of sweet soy sauce and 2 sliced tomatoes. Season with 1 tsp salt (or to taste), 1/2 tsp ground pepper, and a pinch of granulated sugar. Let come to the boil again. Just before removing the mixture from flame, add fried fish, fried potato and 50 g soaked glass noodles. Serves 4.

In many places, the fruit flesh is sweetened and called Manisan Pala. For those having a taste of the preserved fruit flesh for the first time a rather tangy taste will be obvious. Some people suggest not to eat Manisan Pala too much because it is addictive. It can also apparently induce drowsiness and if eaten in excess can have the same fatal result as an overdose of sleeping pills. But nevertheless it is a very popular snack.

Bogor with its cool, rainy climate is one of Indonesia's most famous places for Manisan Pala, where it is sold wet and dry. If you want to see what nutmeg looks like fresh, go to Bogor where you'll find nutmeg galore at the traditional wet markets. If you feel inspired you could even check out Bogor plant sellers who sell nutmeg trees from 30cm high - perfect in an earthenware pot to complement the sunny side of your terrace.

Nutmeg trees are also wonderful male and female trees. A male tree is able to fertilize ten to twenty female trees and they are called therefore "the harem" tree (a term coined by French botanist Nicolas Cere). And according to A Taste of India, (by Mary S. Atwood) the Shah of Persia, Sultan Husain 1711, declared himself "The Sun of Glory and the nutmeg of Delight".

Full article by Suryatini N. Gani

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