Originating in the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia, cloves have been used as a spice and traditional medicine for thousands of years. Cloves are a unique spice with their fiery, sweet, aromatic flavor enhancing beverages as well as sweet and savory dishes. Because of their exceptional versatility and intense fragrance cloves have always been held in high esteem in the cuisines of Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
Cloves are the dried flower buds of a twenty-four to forty foot evergreen tree in the myrtle family, Syzygium aromaticum. They are grown commercially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. The flower buds of the clove tree initially have a pale green hue and are grouped in terminal clusters. Just before the buds blossom they turn a brilliant pink, at which point they must be harvested immediately.
Cloves are harvested at one to two centimeters long and consist of a long calyx that terminates in four spreading sepals and four unopened petals that form a small central ball. One adult tree yields about a seven-pound harvest.
The freshly picked cloves are spread out to dry on mats in the sun until they turn a deep brown hue. They are then hand sorted for size and perfection. Cloves from Sri Lanka are considered the best in quality.
Eugenol is the oily the compound most responsible for the distinctive aroma of cloves. Although eugenol has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties it is toxic in relatively small quantities. For example, a dose of 5–10 ml has been reported as a near fatal dose for a two-year-old child. Eugenol or clove oil can also pit or dissolve plastic so it is best stored in a glass container.
Although cloves are native to Indonesia they do not play a major part in Indonesian cuisines. However, Indonesians are the main consumers of cloves and use nearly half of the world’s production. In Indonesia clove flavored cigarettes called kretek are extremely popular and enjoyed frequently by nearly every Indonesian male.
In South Asian cuisines cloves are mainly valued for their heat and aromatic sweetness in savory dishes. Nearly every variant and regional blend of the spicy mix garam masala contains powdered cloves. Cloves are often used whole in sabut or khada masalas along with peppercorns, cassia bark, and cardamom to fragrantly flavor curries, biryanis, and pulaos.
|Mmmmmm...love my morning & afternoon cuppa!|
My favorite use of cloves is in the traditional spicy milk tea called masala chai. A single clove and two green cardamoms per tablespoon of Assamese black tea leaves is my favorite chai blend for Spring and Summer. Although cloves work well in sweet dishes there aren't many Indian desserts that feature them. Most Indian desserts that do contain cloves are Mughal inspired such as the carrot based gajjar ki halwa, the fragrant rice pudding kheer, and the creamy vermicelli noodle dessert seviyan.
Use cloves sparingly, their bold flavor can quickly overpower a dish and will intensify the longer they are cooked.
Store cloves in a non plastic container as their volatile oils can dissolve plastic. Be careful when grinding cloves as their oils and sharp edges will pit and score a plastic top on an electric grinder too.
Equal amounts of allspice is a good substitute for cloves.