Nutmeg is not something we historically had in India, it came with the spice trade. It’s a warming, winter spice. Winter is India’s family wedding season. It’s no longer hot, and you can cook without things curdling and going off. Like kheer [a rice pudding] for 2,000 people or carrot halwa; milk is reduced for hours and hours, then we put in carrots and grate nutmeg on it with sugar.
I always associate nutmeg with the excitement of the wedding: meeting the cousins, dressing up, henna-ing your hands, and slightly unpleasant aunts who make terrible comments about you. Memories of this spice are very strong for me, emotionally.
In my dum biryani, the final stage is to grate nutmeg on the potatoes and then pour over hot saffron-infused milk. My mother would say that the one way of checking the biryani is made by a sophisticated cook is if you break the potato and there is the nutmeg aroma. The flavour has an earthiness, but there is also that floral tinge.
Saffron is considered the most expensive spice, but in my family, nutmeg is the special spice to finish things off. Not everybody knows how to use it in this way, so this was a sense of pride for us.
When I go to buy nutmeg, I want the slightly oval ones, like a rugby ball. My mother always said they are better; I have no idea why, but you never dispute your mother.