Homemade Nutmeg Syrup

I love market days.
This morning, I was at the market and my vegetable lady had some fresh nutmeg for sale.

Fresh nutmeg - aren't they beautiful?
Fresh nutmeg - aren't they beautiful?

Penang is famous for nutmeg juice and nutmeg slices and all sorts of nutmeg balms and oils because nutmeg is grown quite a fair bit on the rural side – in Balik Pulau. I think it’s because we get it so easily we kind of look upon it unkindly and don’t really appreciate the fruit for its medicinal qualities.
I bought a kilo of fresh nutmeg and the vegetable lady taught me how to cook this down into a syrup. I enjoy experimenting in the kitchen so this was just perfect (just like making roselle syrup!).
Plus nutmeg drinks are healthy and contain a host of good stuff for your body. I read that nutmeg oil stimulates the brain and relieves stress. Nutmeg on its own helps with detoxification of the liver. If you have heart problems, nutmeg can stimulate blood circulation. It can increase appetites, reduce joint and muscle pain (that’s why we have nutmeg salve and nutmeg balm), can get rid of gassiness and bloatedness, and help with coughs and colds and general respiratory issues. It removes halitosis, treats menstrual pains and is reputed to be an aphrodisiac! The only contraindication is that pregnant women should avoid taking this.
If you have trouble falling asleep, nutmeg is the answer. In fact, nutmeg is so useful, it’s a wonder why we don’t love this fruit more! Besides nutritional benefits, it seems that pagans used nutmeg as symbols of luck, money, health and fidelity. Nutmeg was so expensive back in 1800s that Europeans wore graters around their necks so they could grate their own nutmeg into their food!
OK, now that you know the nutmeg is such a wonderful spice and fruit, let’s cook the nutmeg.
Wash the fruit under running water, drain and cut the fruit up. Remove its seed.
Split nutmeg, showing its seed covered in mace (the reddish stuff)
Split nutmeg, showing its seed covered in mace (the reddish stuff)

Inside is the nutmeg seed covered in the reddish skin (which is called mace and very much useful so don’t throw this seed and mace away). Dry these seeds and mace under the hot sun – now’s a good time as Penang is very warm! Perfect for sunning nutmeg seeds. According to the vegetable lady, you can crack 1 nutmeg seed into your pot of ‘tau yew bak’ (braised pork in soya sauce) for extra yumminess. So keep them.
Fresh nutmeg, sliced and ready to be boiled down into a delicious syrup
Fresh nutmeg, sliced and ready to be boiled down into a delicious syrup

Place the fruit into a pot and add 1 kg of rock sugar. I added 2 large bowls of water and put the pot over a medium fire for 15 minutes, covered. After 15 minutes, turn down the fire to its lowest and simmer for another 30 – 40 minutes (pot still covered) until the syrup has thickened slightly. Cool and store in jars in the fridge.
Nutmeg syrup - ready to drink!
Nutmeg syrup - ready to drink!

The syrup will be of a golden colour. Coffeeshops around Penang do serve nutmeg drinks but I’d sometimes ask if they’re freshly made or boiled. The colour of these nutmeg drinks is whitish and a friend told me why this was so. If the drink is whitish instead of a deep golden hue, it means the skin was removed before boiling. Not sure if this is true or if the coffeeshop people just blended the flesh of the nutmeg fruit! You know, like how you’d make a fresh watermelon ice blended. Just blend the fruit! One day I must investigate or ask why the colour’s different from my homemade syrup.
When you want a thirst-quenching drink, just spoon a few tablespoons of nutmeg syrup and mix with water. Top with ice cubes and serve. For the elderly, you can mix the nutmeg syrup with warm water. It makes a refreshing warm drink!
One more thing, you can reserve the softened nutmeg fruit and eat them, or you can keep them to serve with the nutmeg drink. I suppose you could dry them in the sun and eat them as a snack but I haven’t done that before. To me, it’s such a waste to throw out the nutmeg fruit.
If you have a large enough slow cooker or crockpot, you can boil this syrup overnight or more. I don’t have a big slow cooker so I did mine over a regular stove.

A Tale of 2 Laksa

Went for the monthly PHT visit on Sunday to Balik Pulau. It was worth it though as PHT visits are always educational. I suppose that is why we keep being members. (If you want to be a member, call them at +604 264 2631 or email phtrust@streamyx.com)

A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau
A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau

For us, Balik Pulau is about durians when the season rolls around each May to August. It thrills us that we get to climb some hills just to partake in our favourite fruit.
This time, the 40 of us members were joined by Yusmadi Yusoff, the MP for Balik Pulau. Dressed in a grey long sleeve shirt with dark slacks, he was ready to accompany us as we walked down the main street of his little town (yes, he is a local boy, bred in Balik Pulau).
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)

Many a time, I am left amazed at the rich history we have here in Penang. The rich narratives, the old stories, the people who used to live here are incredibly fascinating. If only students joined PHT, they wouldn’t despise history that is taught in schools by teachers who don’t know how to tell proper stories of the people and places that matter.
Anyway, besides durian, Balik Pulau (which simply means “the other side of the island”) is also famous for its asam laksa or Penang laksa.
This visit saw us stopping for asam laksa at Chuang Heong Cafe which is directly opposite the old (and no longer used) Pasar Balik Pulau. Yusmadi was coerced into treating the bunch of us for laksa so he picked this one although Yoke Pin gave us the history of the other one, the corner coffeeshop laksa stall manned by Uncle John and his wife.
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe

Actually I would have preferred to try Uncle John’s laksa as I’ve always seen tourists spilling out of that coffeeshop each time we pass by! I was decidedly curious about the taste of Uncle John’s laksa, reputedly a recipe he bought from a Mrs Kim who had gotten it from Grandma Khoo. The Khoo family was one of the richest families in Balik Pulau and the story went that Madam Khoo was the original laksa soup supplier to all of Balik Pulau laksa stalls at one time.
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa

Here’s why Balik Pulau is famed for its laksa – it is smack in the midst of fishing villages and coconut plantations. Fresh kembung fish make all the difference to the laksa gravy. Besides the traditional asam laksa, there’s also the laksa lemak version which uses coconut cream or santan. Coconuts are plentiful in this part of Penang.
The old Balik Pulau market place
The old Balik Pulau market place

Another interesting nugget of history: you cannot miss the tallest shop in this town at Number 100. It’s a Chinese shophouse once owned by the Kapitan Cina, Mr Chee, who is the great-great grandfather of the current occupant, Mr Khoo. We were supposed to visit Mr Khoo’s home to see his sprawling house but this did not materialize. Oh well. Maybe another time!
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town

Nic and I always love chatting with people and so as we slurped up the last spoonfuls of laksa gravy, the stall owner, Mr Tan came by. I’m sure he was pleased that Yusmadi picked his shop over the competitor opposite to belanja us all.
He started to regale us with his laksa lineage. The original laksa of Balik Pulau fame actually belonged to his family. His father started selling laksa in 1968 at the old market place. When the new market was built, the stall was shifted there (the Tan family has 2 stalls in the new market, Stall Number 30 and 37).
However, business wasn’t as fantastic as they had hoped so they found a shoplot at the present Chuan Heong Cafe. So now they have 3 stalls of laksa! He mentioned that most locals don’t eat laksa, it’s the outsiders (non-Balik Pulau residents and outstation tourists) who make up the bulk of his business. He groused that the stall opposite (Uncle John, a.k.a his competitor-lah) was getting all the business as they had a website and their website popped up in all the search engines so that’s why they’ve been doing so well! (As an aside, I thought, well, Uncle Tan, you could do the same too. You could get yourself a website, right? Why don’t you?)
My verdict is that Uncle Tan’s laksa is pretty decent. It is flavourful and fragrant, packed with lots of kembung fish. The gravy is just nice, not overly spicy that it burns your tongue, nor is it so mild that you cannot taste the spice mix. Portions are also good enough. I also tried the laksa lemak version which is creamier. I cannot say which I like best, the asam or lemak version, as both have their own deliciousness factors! Try both. I think the price is about RM2.50 to RM3 per bowl.
When you are here, you must order the nutmeg and asam boi drink. Balik Pulau is famous for its nutmeg farms so you are getting the real thing here and not some nutmeg cordial (this is what happens if you order nutmeg drink in Georgetown sometimes). Some people may not like this drink as it leaves a sappy aftertaste. It’s like eating lots of nutmeg at one go and then your tongue starts feeling like someone rubbed sandpaper all over it. That’s the feeling.
This is just Part 1 of Balik Pulau. Look out for Part 2 where Yoke Pin took us on a trip down Balik Pulau lanes!