Cloves are one of the most widely-used and familiar spices in cuisines throughout the world. The clove is the aromatic dried flower bud of an evergreen tree. The tree grows in height ranging from eight to twelve meters. Cloves are actually the unopened pink flower buds of the trees. The small buds, which are about a half inch long and quarter inch in diameter, are hand-picked when they are pink and dried until they are brown in color. They resemble tiny nails and their name is actually derived from the Latin word for “nail,” which is clavus.
Clove trees are native to the Maluku or Spice Islands in Indonesia. Records of use in China and Syria go back over 2,000 years. Cloves were brought to Europe around the 4th century by Arab traders, but they were not popular there until the Middle Ages, when they were used to mask the flavor of spoiled foods, and were heavily traded by Arab sailors. They are now harvested primarily in Indonesia, India, Madagascar, and Zanzibar, which is currently the world’s largest producer of cloves.
The essential flavor in cloves comes from a chemical compound called eugenol, which makes up 49-80 percent (by volume) of clove oil. Cloves have been used as essential ingredients in a variety of sweet and savory dishes throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and have been used to flavor meats, curries, and marinades. The clove flavor pairs well with other spices high in eugenol such as cinnamon and allspice. In Mexican cuisine, they are usually paired with cinnamon and cumin. They are one of the primary ingredients in Indian chai tea and a prominent flavor in pho, a Vietnamese beef broth with noodles. Cloves are now sold ground or whole or in the form of clove oil, which can be purchased in pure or diluted form. According to the The George Mateljan Foundation for the World’s Healthiest Foods, cloves are a good source of manganese, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium.
Clove oil, extracted from the leaves, flower buds, and fruit has been valued for centuries for its variety of medicinal applications in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, herbalism, and dentistry. In dentistry, the essential oil has been used for centuries as a painkiller and for its numbing effect on mouth tissues. In Chinese medicine it is valued for treating hiccups and impotence. Clove oil has been used to improve digestive functions, relieve nausea and vomiting, fight off intestinal parasites, as an antibacterial agent, and to stop migraine headaches. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy or applied topically for its warming effects and effectiveness at aiding digestion.
However, in modern times, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reduced the effectiveness rating of eugenol for easing toothache pain, as there is not enough evidence of its effectiveness. According to the American Cancer Society, there is not yet sufficient scientific evidence of the cancer-fighting properties of cloves and while numerous scientific studies have hinted at the promise of cloves to help fight cancer, “further studies are needed to determine whether the results apply to humans.”
Nevertheless, cloves pack a big punch in terms of flavor and continue to be valued as an alternative medicine for a variety of medical conditions. There is no doubt their flavor and aroma will continue to arouse the senses of people around the world.
Do you have a favorite recipe that features cloves and their unique and distinctive flavor? Try this one at home!
Recipe: Garam Masala (Spice Mix)
One three-inch piece of cinnamon
1 cup whole cardamom pods
1/2 cup whole cloves
1/2 cup cumin seeds
1/4 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
-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 an electric blender