Mention Cloves, and for me, it is the fragrance of hot steaming rice, exotic tea cakes from faraway lands, bubbling stews, curries, cool mocktails, and heady cocktails. My mind then wanders on to Chinese five-spice, Garam masala, and warm drinks like spicy mulled wine, apple cider, and good ole chai.
So what are the other culinary uses of cloves?
The Sanskrit word for clove is Laung and Ayurveda recommends it to be used especially during winter in food to increase one’s digestive fire.
Used sparingly in most recipes, cloves are used in sweet and savoury dishes and drinks as a flavouring agent. This pungent, dark, numbing spice adds warmth to pickling liquids, sweet chutneys, and jams. It is the main ingredient to Worcestershire sauce and is also used to make ketchup.
Often added to spice blends for meat rubs, marinades, and barbecue sauces it is also used to spice cookies and gingerbread. It is that familiar hum to pumpkin pie, roasted pumpkin, stuffings, and warm rice puddings. Cloves are also a big part of traditional food like Vietnamese poh and German red cabbage. They add depth to sweet warm winter desserts like stewed apples, rhubarb, and pears.
At home, we use clove oil diluted in a little water on our kitchen counters as a natural cleaner and to deter pests. We also burn the essential oil and use it as an air freshener. You will often find cloves are used for both their fragrance and anti-inflammatory properties in many products like toothpaste, mouthwash, oils, soaps, etc.
The story of cloves.
The English name for cloves is derived from the Latin word Clavus which means nail also known as clou by the French.
Originally cloves were mainly grown only on the then ‘Spice Islands’, (in Indonesia) also know as Moluccas. Many wars were fought over this pungent, and intensely flavoured spice. The Dutch did everything in their power to continue their monopoly over the clove market for money and profit to the extreme that they burnt down every clove tree that didn’t grow on Dutch-controlled spice islands.
The oldest clove tree, found on one of these islands called Ternate is named Afo and is believed to be 300-400 years old. Stories are told of how the seedlings of this tree were smuggled by a Frenchman and taken out of Indonesia to Mauritius and then onto Zanzibar. Once the world’s leading producer of cloves.
In ancient China not only were cloves used in everything from perfumes, medicines, and food but also if Chinese courtiers wished to address the Emperor they had to chew on cloves to make sure their breath was fresh before they did so in order not to offend the Emperor.
In fact when we were kids, the Empress of our home our mum often offered us cloves and cardamom to chew on after a meal or especially when we woke up on a road trip and couldn’t brush our teeth.
Cloves are popular in Asia, Africa, and Middle Eastern cuisine. They have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, and aid in digestion. Clove oil is used to kill parasites, and as an essential oil for stress relief, and to repel insects.
Clove honey is used for those suffering from bone conditions and colds. It is also used to protect children from infections. They are used as a digestive and to relieve symptoms of asthma and to treat fungal infections, relieve toothaches and headaches.
When using this oil one always needs to do it with utmost caution. I speak from personal experience;).
A while ago I accidentally dropped a bottle of clove oil. It stained my kitchen counter, scarred my steel coffee maker, and burnt through a plastic lid. So never underestimate the power of this oil or any other essential oil for that matter especially if they are pure essential oils. Always use or ingest it with caution.
Where do cloves come from and how do we know they are fresh?
The clove tree grows to an enormous height of about 8-12 meters. The flower buds of this tree go from green to a very bright pinkish-red when ready to harvest. The round ball that is the central part of the clove is the unopened 4 petals of the flower. These immature flower buds are picked by hand and are then dried in the sun for three days until they turn brown. If you ever get a chance to observe how this spice is harvested you will have a newfound respect for every clove that you use. As for its colour the darker cloves that we generally purchase at our spice markets are dried for longer and are not as aromatic so avoid buying those if possible.
Clove trees love the hot tropical and intensely humid environments of countries like Sri Lanka, India, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Madagascar, etc.
Of these Indonesia is the current number one producer of cloves.
So how does one know a clove is fresh?
As I mentioned earlier. Besides the aroma, the colour is generally a good indicator. Also when squeezed with your fingernails good quality cloves will release some oil. I have heard that if you place a clove in a cup of water a good quality clove will float vertically and while a stale one will sink or float horizontally. Let me know if this works.
So make sure you always buy cloves in small quantities. You can store them for up to a year, but they are at their best when used within 6 months.
My fondest memory of this sweet, intense, yet warm spice was when my husband’s aunt cooked us an excellent meal on our very first holiday one August, of whole roasted Hammon, studded beautifully with cloves. It looked, smelt, and felt like Christmas that day. We all happily tucked into it while exchanging stories and catching up on the bits of each other’s life we had missed. Food always tastes better with family or good friends don’t you think?
This recipe below is a syrup. It can be used as part of a drink for adults or kids. The adults can add it to a cocktail, the kids with some soda or cool water. It can also be used as a thicker syrup on a cake, especially plain orange tea cake that needs some oomph. It can also be drizzled over a hot batch of freshly made savoury pancakes.
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 2 oranges
110g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
To make the syrup: take a pan and place all the ingredients in it. Bring it to a boil and stir occasionally. Lower the flame and simmer for 5 minutes or until you have a thick syrup. You’re done!
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