Cloves (lavang) are the unopened flower buds of an Indonesian tree. Well, a tree from the North Moluccan Spice Islands if you want to be more precise, although they are now widely cultivated in tropical regions.
The tree is an evergreen tree and to start with the flower buds are pale then they turn green, just before the flower buds open they turn pink and this is the cue to harvest them. Harvesting is typically done by hand which partly accounts for their high price. After harvesting they are dried, traditionally in the sun on palm mats, to become the reddish-brown spice that we know. If left to open the flowers are a brilliant crimson red.
The name comes from the Latin clavus meaning 'nail' ('cos they look like nails?). Their smell is very pungent and aromatic, the oil which gives this typical 'clove' smell is called eugenol and also exists in smaller quantities in nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaves. The taste is very strong, sweet and sharp at the same time.
Cloves have been cultivated for about 4000 years but it is only comparatively recently that they have been grown anywhere else but the Spice Islands of the Moluccas where they originated. They were certainly known to the Romans and prized as a spice along with pepper and nutmeg.
Like a lot of spices they were extremely valuable and this promoted a number of trade wars. During the middle ages they were traded along with other spices, by the Arabs and then the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch established their spice routes.
Eventually, during the early 18th century the plant was successfully grown in other areas; firstly Mauritius, by the French and then Guyana, Brazil and the West Indies.
Cloves can be used both whole and ground. They are sometimes user in curry powders and more often in garam masala. In Garam Masala, used at the end of cooking, they give a wonderful fresh lift to the dish.
They are used right across India and often in drink as well as food; they are often added whole to tea along with cardamom. (When I was on business in India, they brought me a cup of tea with cardamom and cloves it was really good).
The taste is very strong so go carefully or it will completely overpower a dish. They go well with red meat dishes particularly mutton and lamb, and are often used in Biryanis and are important in both vindaloo and chicken korma.
Cloves are packed with vitamins; they have loads of C,K and E plus traces of A, B6, Riboflavin and Folate. There are also lots of minerals; Manganese, Calcium and Iron with traces of nearly everything else. Lots of fibre as well.
They have long been used for their medicinal properties; Chinese traditional medicine uses them to treat indigestion and diarrhoea as well as more bizzarre complaints such as ringworm and athlete's foot. In fact they are said to be good for all sorts of digestive complaints such as stomach ulcers, vomiting and flatulence.
The oil that is extracted has powerful antiseptic and mild anaesthetic actions. And certainly the oil is used to relieve toothache (If you saw the film 'Marathon Man' you will know this). I'm pretty sure I've seen it listed as an ingredient on some mouthwash products. The oil is also used for various skin complaints like irritations and burns and even for acne.
Also amongst the list of illnesses purported to be cured by cloves are: scabies, cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. It is also used, studded into oranges, as a mosquito repellent - there is little conclusive scientific support for these.
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