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Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of the tropical evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum. When dried, they turn to rust-brown four-pointed flower buds with tapered stems resembling small nails. Clove is a warm, pungent spice with a strong aroma. It is indigenous to the Moluccas, the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia. Today it is cultivated in Brazil, the West Indies, Mauritius, Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Pemba. The most important production area is the island of Pemba; the whole island of Pemba is covered with clove gardens.
Cloves trees thrive in the tropics near the sea. Heavy rainfall is a must for the growth of the tree. And a dry summer season is needed for harvesting and drying the spice. Twice a year clove clusters are picked by hand before the buds open. The buds are separated from the stems and spread on mats to dry in the sun for several days until they turn dark brown. They lose two-thirds of their weight after drying.
The aroma of clove is stronger than most other spices and only a small quantity of the spice is used in most recipes. Like any other spice cloves are best bought whole. The flavor quickly deteriorates when it is powdered or crushed.
Chinese have been using cloves in their cuisine since ancient times. It is also a staple spice in Sri Lankan cooking. It is used in the cuisine of Northern India, the Middle East and many Arab countries and Northern Africa. Cloves are generally used in meat dishes and to flavor rice dishes in all these cuisines. In Ethiopia cloves are roasted with coffee beans to give it a spicy note. Cloves are an integral part of many spice mixtures: Chinese five spice powder, Indian garam masala, Arabic baharat, Moroccan ras el hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ethiopian berbere.
In American cooking the Christmas ham is studded with cloves before baking. In Europe cloves are used in sweets or sweet breads and stewed fruits. In England cloves are popular in pickles and in Worcestershire sauce. In France they go into long simmered meat stews. The Mexican mole sauce also contains cloves.
Cloves are not used extensively in the cuisine of the Moluccas or elsewhere in Indonesia. However, more than half of the world production of cloves is consumed by Indonesia. For them more than a fragrant spice, clove is an essential ingredient in cigarette making. Thesweet, incense-like aroma of Indonesian cigarette is enjoyed by practically every Indonesian male.
The essential oils from cloves are used in perfumes, toothpastes, mouthwashes and breath fresheners. Oil of clove is an old and reliable toothache reliever, is antiseptic and was used in medicine to aid digestion. Cloves were used in ancient times to treat respiratory and digestive ailments. Ancient Chinese medicine used cloves to treat indigestion, diarrhea, hernia, and athlete's foot and other fungal infections. According to Indian ayurveda cloves are believed to have a positive effect on stomach ulcers, vomiting, and flatulence. It also stimulates the digestive system.
The history of cloves, another spice indigenous to the Moluccas Islands, is similar to that of nutmeg and mace. Trade between the small island of Ternate, called the Clove Island, and China goes back at least 2500 years. Arab traders introduced cloves to Europe during the days of the Roman Empire. Cloves along with nutmeg became popular in Europe by the eighth century. Spice trade brought great wealth to Venetian traders. The lure of cloves and nutmeg attracted the Portuguese to the Spice Islands in 1514. The Dutch followed them by 1605, and held control over the trade until late in the eighteenth century. The Dutch maintained monopoly of clove trade during all of the seventeenth century and earned high profits. The French introduced the clove tree into Mauritius. Later the cultivation expanded to Guiana, Brazil, Zanzibar and West Indies. Spice trade brought immense wealth to the Venetians, Portuguese, Spanish, the Dutch and the British. This was followed by the extraordinarily successful entry of the United States in 1672 into the spice trade. Salem, Massachusetts became the capital of spices in the first half of the 19th century.
There are as many versions of this popular Indian spice mix as there are Indian cooks. The following is a basic recipe that yields about one and a half cups. Keep the unused portion in airtight jars at room temperature. It stays fresh for about six months.
one three inch piece of cinnamon
1 cup whole cardamom pods
½ cup whole cloves
½ cup cumin seeds
¼ cup coriander seeds
1/3 cup black peppercorns
Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Spread all spices except cardamom on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Stir the spices every six to eight minutes. Open cardamom pods. Remove the roasted spices from the oven and let it cool. Combine spices with cardamom, and grind into a powder using a coffee mill or electric blender.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her first book,“Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy,” (iUniverse paperback). was published in 2007. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.