Nutmeg's Role In Singapore's History
WINE&DINE|April - June 2021
From tales of it being used to ward off the plague in mid-1300s Europe to one of the ingredients in dessert, we have all known, tasted, or at least heard of nutmeg. But not many know of the spice’s role in Singapore’s history.
Hilary Yeo

The fruit of the Myristica species is about the size of an apricot, covered with a brown hard shell that splits open to reveal its prized seed encased in a cage of red tributaries. The nutmeg spice is derived from this shiny seed, commonly found in powder form. Before finding its way into almost every kitchen in the modern world, it has had an intriguing, rich and sometimes not so pleasant history globetrotting from Southeast Asia to England.

While its trees now grow predominantly in Indonesia, where it is mainly produced, what is lesser known is the spice’s history here in Singapore. During the country’s time as a British colony, this small island was swept up in ‘nutmeg mania’ along with the rest of the world. Hectares of plantations filled with rows of tall, evergreen trees could be found all over colonial Singapore, covering all of Orchard road and Duxton Hill.

“The spice quickly became a symbol for wealth and power in Singapore, and as more saw the opportunity to cash in on the crop, even more plantations popped up across the country.”

The streets of nutmeg

Originating from the Maluku Islands also known as the Spice Islands, nutmeg as a commodity was the affair of local kings, who controlled the export of it. Through trade routes across Malacca, where Portuguese sailors got their hands on it and brought it back to Europe, nutmeg grew in value, and at one point was worth 300 times the price to produce.

Nutmeg trees were one of the very first trees planted and cultivated by the British when Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819. During that time, spices, in particular nutmeg, were a popular and valuable commodity between the various colonial powers due to its rarity in Europe. In the book One hundred years of Singapore, the authors detailed the allure of Southeast Asia’s tropical climate that drew many seeking to capitalise on the trade. Forests were cleared for numerous plantations growing all sorts of spices.

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