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Clove

Originating from the ‘Spice Islands’ of the Moluccas, now in modern-day Indonesia, the clove is a spice which has been long been transported across the globe. The English name derives from the Spanish clavo or Latin clavus meaning 'nail'.

Throughout history it has been highly sought-after by buyers, from the street markets of ancient Rome to the narrow souks of the Arabian peninsula. Today cloves are grown across four of the world’s continents, and can be found from Brazil to Zanzibar, and from the West Indies to India.

In Asian cooking, both in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, cloves are an essential spice used especially to flavour curries and to lend taste and aroma to rice. Such is the intensity of flavour in a single dried bud that four or five cloves, simmered in oil with onions, garlic, cinnamon, cardamom and other spices, is sufficient. Any less may leave a dish unfinished, unevenly flavoured and scented; any more and its flavour might overpower others in the subtle competition of flavours that defines Asian cuisine.

Cloves and clove products

Cloves and clove products
Photo by Nur Hannah Wan

Equally as important as its culinary uses are its medicinal properties. Cloves have been used to soothe toothache and gum infections in both eastern and western medical practice. Whether applied in the form of a few dried buds tucked away behind the cheeks and chewed, or in an oil purchased from a chemist, the clove’s numbing effect on the mouth serves well as an effective painkiller. Chinese herbalists have also used cloves for centuries to treat ailments including indigestion, hernia and ringworm. Malaysian-born but London-based masseur Fadhil Omar is a great believer of the healing and soothing powers of cloves, especially for stress and depression.

Fadhil Omar with clove and other essential oils

Fadhil Omar with clove and other essential oils
Photo by Nur Hannah Wan

Named after the crackling sound made by burning clove buds, the clove cigarette or kretek has become an important cultural symbol in Indonesia’s recent history. The unique smell and somewhat dark aromatic scent of the kretek instantly transports you to the bustling street markets of Jakarta or the hawker stalls of Bandung, where scented spirals of smoke waft out of cafes and around street corners. Many stories surround the origins of the kretek; one particularly plausible theory is that cloves were first smoked to help ease the symptoms of asthma. Indeed, in modern-day Britain, in summer hay fever sufferers have been advised to chew cloves to relieve a blocked nose.

The scent of cloves, however, is not unique to the East. In the West it may bring memories of Christmas: of clove-studded orange pomanders, decorated steamy windows and a day of presents, pudding and festivities with the family. 

Text by Taufiq Wan
Interview with Fadhil Omar, London-based masseur, 12 December 2010

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