The melinjo is a fruit tree from the Gnetaceae family, native to Asia and Oceania. It has an extensive native range, all the way from Assam to Vanuatu, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Fiji, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. It is a rainforest tree that is widely cultivated because of the food importance of its fruits. The melinjo fruit is especially important in the cuisine of Indonesia. It has been used in the country for a very long time and the ancient Yogyakarta Kingdom saw the peak of its cultivation and use. The fruits are elliptic in shape but quite small, with a maximum length of about 3.5 and no more than 1.5 cm wide. The strobilus is very fleshy, with a total weight of 5.5 g, of which the seed weight is 3.8 g.
Unlike most other related plants that are lianas, the melinjo is a tree that can reach a small or medium size. The biggest examples can reach a height of up to 20 m. It is an evergreen species with opposite leaves with a length between 8 and 20 cm and a width from 3 to 10 cm. Their color is similar to bronze in their youth but they turn dark green later in their life cycle. Female strobilus doesn't have any flesh, just nutty seeds with a length of 2 to 4 cm inside their skin. The small male strobilus is usually confused with a flower.
When ripe, the strobili turn red and are consumed by many animals, including reptiles, birds and mammals. The maturing season is very long, from early summer until early autumn.
The melinjo is very rich in essential minerals and various bioactive compounds. It has a generous content of antioxidants, which delay aging and cure cancer and heart issues. The seeds are rich in manganese, a mineral that plays an important role in the normal functions of the brain and can reduce stress and calm the nerves. Manganese increases the transmission of electrical impulses through the nerves, which improves cognition and mental health. The antioxidants in the seeds, especially the superoxide dismutase, can neutralize the free radicals that attack the brain and the neural connections.
Another vital mineral is copper, which must be supplied daily to the body. It plays numerous roles and is required for the normal operation of the nervous system, circulatory system and bone health. A healthy diet must include an adequate supply of copper, otherwise tissues can't grow properly and red blood cells will not transport enough oxygen. A lack of copper is one of the common causes for growth problems in poor countries.
Melinjo is also a major source of iron, which is needed for red blood cells but also plays other important roles. It can balance the temperature of the body according to the capacity of every person to absorb heat. The proper temperature influences every function of the body and can increase the metabolism rate and the efficiency of enzymes.
Another important mineral needed by the human body is zinc. A good supply of this element boosts the activity of the white blood cells, which fight infections and increase the rate of healing. This counters numerous types of infections caused by wounds, burns, surgery, ulcers or cancer. Zinc is also needed by the skin since it can be found in the structure of collagen, a connective tissue that maintains it.
In order to work normally, our brain needs an adequate supply of potassium. When available in high amounts, potassium can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which provides a boost in its activity. It is also very important for the health of the heart and can significantly reduce the risk of strokes. This is because potassium expands blood vessels and increases their flexibility, decreasing the possibility of them being blocked. When the blood flows freely, the risk of vascular accidents is very low.
Magnesium is important because it relieves stress, in particular muscular tension and kidney problems. It increases the speed of bone healing by boosting the intake of calcium, their main building material. A lack of calcium will cause chronic fatigue and leg pain, among other symptoms. This can even lead to severe leg cramps, which can be cured with a proper calcium intake.
Like magnesium phosphorous is also vital for the health of the human kidneys. Its main role is to ensure that the toxins processed in the kidneys are eliminated fast through urine and feces. Phosphorous can regulate urination, both the timing and the amount. This will allow the body to maintain optimal levels of uric acid, water, fats and salt. The balance of fluids is key in the detoxification process.
Proteins form the core of the microfilaments that are the structural support of every muscle in the body. A proper supply of proteins is essential for the normal operation and contraction of muscular tissues. Without enough protein, the muscles can't grow or be repaired after damage. An adequate supply of proteins is extremely important for health. In addition, proteins are the structure of hair and are needed for its repair and maintenance. An insufficient supply of proteins will severely cripple hair growth. For this reason, proteins are included in many special products for the hair, such as shampoos and conditioners.
Local inhabitants have been using the sap from melinjo leaves to cure eye problems. In their traditional medical system, the seeds are thought to provide increased endurance. It was also an ingredient in a combination used to heal people who were bitten by dogs. Another ancient usage was as a treatment against anemia.
The tree has a number of industrial uses as well. The timber is durable and can be good in the structure of houses or in the production of tool handles. It can also be burned as fuel or transformed into paper, especially in Indonesia.
Papuans have discovered that fibers taken from under the bark of the branches are a great choice for chords of traditional musical instruments, as well as the cords of bags. Since the fibers are not affected by sea water, they can also be used in the manufacture of fishing equipment.
One of the reasons why melinjo is valuable is that several parts of it are actually edible. The seeds are the most important and can be consumed raw, boiled or fried. Leaves can be eaten as a green vegetable or as a package for other foods.
Vanuatu islanders eat both the leaves and the immature cones, after boiling them and adding coconut cream to improve the taste. The same parts of the plant are eaten in Papua New Guinea, as an ingredient in meat dishes. A type of flour is prepared in Indonesia from the grounded seeds, which is then made into a flat cake or some sort of crackers. A different type of snack is prepared by frying the flesh on the seeds. The tree is quite important in Indonesian cuisine.
The most likely cause for the relevance of melinjo in Indonesia is that the plant is probably native to the country. It is an ingredient in many local recipes, like the vegetable soup with a sour taste sayur asem. It is also prepared as emping, a variety of fried crackers similar to krupuk. These are a popular snack or side dish in the country, because of their mildly bitter taste. Leaves are a common ingredient in salads and various Indonesian dishes based on vegetables.
Melinjo is widely cultivated in Aceh, where it is considered an expensive and good quality vegetable, for people with a high status. The main use is in kuah pliek, a specific vegetable curry prepared in the region. Both the male and female strobili are included as ingredients, as well as the leaves. It is a traditional dish that is only prepared on important moments, like the khanduri and keureudja. Keureupuk muling is the name of a dish made from the red mature fruits in the Pidie province. Javans use in their sayur asem the immature seeds and the melinjo leaves.
The tree can grow very quickly in both sunny and shaded locations. Since it can also withstand the destructive force of cyclones, it is very useful in the forestry industry of Southeast Asia.
Melinjo can usually be found in plantations mixed with other trees like rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) and durian (Durio spp.). Indonesians plant it between orchards of screwpine (Pandanus spp.) and breadfruit (Artocapus camansi). The tree has the advantage of easy propagation from seeds and many seedlings emerge on their own under the mature trees and can be planted elsewhere. Because of its many uses, it is quite popular in gardens. It can also be transformed into a nice ornamental tree, by pruning it until it reaches the required size.