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The “Nail Incense”: Uncovering the Clove – Part I

The steamy tropical air of the Indian Ocean port was thick with spicy fumes. Aromatic droplets fragrant with cloves filled the atmosphere. A recent college graduate teaching in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, I walked through the harbor during a brief sojourn on the island off the coast of the East African nation. Zanzibar was formally part of Tanzania but had a culture all its own. I had often discussed the spice island’s history in my classes at a secondary school outside Dar. A number of my students, many of whom wore the distinctive white caps of Islam, hailed from the predominantly Muslim society.

After reading so much about Zanzibar’s storied past, I was eager to see the island for myself. At the time, in the mid-‘60s, the state was ruled by a totalitarian regime allied to the Soviet Union. The secretive rulers decreed that no visitor could stay overnight. Hence I wanted to make the most of the short time available.

Looking around the harbor, I watched port workers hauling large bags of cloves, the chief export of what was then the world’s largest producer of the spice. Cans of coconut oil rested on the dock. A ship headed for Bombay waited in the harbor.

I briefly explored the narrow streets of Stone Town, the ancient quarter of the capital, which had more the feel of Persia and Arabia than of Africa. Many of the island’s people of mixed blood had ancestors from both of those trading powers. I stopped to gaze at the intricately carved double wooden doors of the houses.

I decided to see the countryside. Touring in a taxi, I was overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of tropical crops — pineapples, peppers, breadfruit, coffee, bananas. My gracious driver-guide amazed me when he peeled off some cinnamon bark, a spice of mysterious origin, which I had heretofore seen only in a spice jar. He also showed me a clove branch. The air was redolent of lemon grass. Wherever we drove, piles of drying coconuts lined the road.

I was mesmerized by the lush green area. It felt like a “tropical landscape,” I wrote in a letter to my grandparents. I was not then fully aware of the arduous labor on which the island’s wealth depended. Harvesting cloves, I later learned, was still done in the traditional manner. Workers climbed to the tree’s upper branches. They snagged the ends of branches with long hooked poles, pulling them until they were within their reach. Grasping the clusters of aromatic buds, they dropped them in a basket

For all my enchantment with cloves, I was not curious enough at the time to investigate them further. I loved their aroma, but if you had asked me what the peculiar wooden-looking spices actually were, I would have come up blank. As a kid, I had enjoyed the flavor of the cloves that pierced my mother’s baked hams. I left the island no more knowledgeable about the spice whose aroma had bewitched me than I had been in my childhood.

From my studies, I knew that the quest for cloves and other spices had been the cause of furious rivalries among empires and the basis for great bloodshed. But having taken the mysterious aromatic for granted, I could not comprehend the passions it aroused. Why would voyages be launched to distant lands through treacherous seas to capture what seemed an inconsequential object?

Twenty years later, I grew more attentive to unusual ingredients after I began writing columns on ethnic food for Washington’s InTowner newspaper. I started noticing cloves in an unexpected setting. A visit to Adisu Gebeya, an Ethiopian grocery in my Adams-Morgan neighborhood, led to a startling discovery. In this spice emporium, I took in the strong smell of incense and gazed at the many containers of seasonings with mysterious names like Bishop’s Weed, Corarima, and Rue. A pot of tea always seemed to be brewing near the market’s entrance. In it cloves were steeping. Talking with proprietor Raheal Mekuria, I found out that Ethiopians in Washington, the city with this country’s largest population of the East African immigrants, were especially fond of spicy tea. Her shop also carried cinnamon and cardamom, two other popular tea flavorings.

The name for clove in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, is k’rinfud. The word tantalized me because it was so similar to the Arabic name for the spice, quaranful. Much to the amusement of cabdrivers and Ethiopian friends with whom I talked, I usually mangled its pronunciation. This did not keep me from probing the spice’s connection with the Arab world. Arabs who sailed their tiny dhows in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, I found out, forged commercial connections with the Horn of Africa. It made sense that Ethiopia, across the Red Sea from Yemen, should share a culinary culture and vocabulary with their Arabian neighbors.

Cloves infuse Ethiopian stews or wats with their sharp aroma. They are a key ingredient in berbere, the red pepper paste that is the foundation of so many of these dishes. A bit of clove in rice, grocery owner Merkuria told me, adds a nice touch. “If you make rice and put in one whole k’rinfud, the taste and smell is good.”

I now had a real incentive to solve the clove puzzle. Writing about Ethiopian food demanded it. I began poring over studies by specialists from a mixture of fields—geography, botany, geography, anthropology, among others. To my surprise, I found out that there was a book by a C.E. Tidbury, who had been an agricultural official in Zanzibar, on this obscure subject. There were, of course, always cooks, grocers, restaurant owners, and the ethnics themselves who were willing to initiate me into spice lore.

I gradually pieced together some basic information about the clove. In simplest terms, it is the unopened flower bud of a tall tropical evergreen. This member of the myrtle family, which can tower to 30 feet and live for a 100 years, is often graced by a leafy canopy. The tree, as depicted by English writer F.B. Pearce in 1920, looked like an “enormous shrub or bush.” The clove is the “most pleasing object to gaze upon, with its dense masses of aromatic and glossy leaves, which effectively conceal the branches and the trunks of the main growth.”

Harvesting the buds is a delicate and painstaking process. They must be picked when they are pink before their flowers open. The buds are then laid out in the sun to dry. In the process, they turn into the familiar reddish brown spice. The nail-shaped bud is coveted because its oil glands produce the spice’s intoxicating scent.

In their fascination with the clove, cultures have conjured up a variety of names for the spice. The old French word, clou, from which our English name derives, means nail. The medieval hand-forged nail, with its distinctive metallic petals, bore a striking resemblance to the folded petals of the clove bud. Long before this, the mystified Greeks dubbed the spice as the caryophillon, the “petal of a nut plant.”

People in the West had only the vaguest idea of where the “spicie drugs,” as the poet Milton called them, were located or even what they looked like. They were somewhere in the remote Orient, in dangerous lands on the edge of the world. The East, it was imagined, was also an Eden filled with riches and precious aromatics. Mysterious and fantastical, the Spice Islands in the Eastern Sea possessed a powerful mystique. All of this enhanced the value and aura of spices.

Bizarre stories of the spice kingdoms abounded. An early account by Ibrahim ibn Wasif-shah was one such tale: “Also somewhere near India is the island containing the Valley of Cloves. No merchants or sailors have ever been to the valley or have ever seen the kind of tree that produces cloves: its fruit they say is sold by genies. The sailors arrive at the island, place their items of merchandise on the shore, and return to their ship. Next morning, they find, beside each item, a quantity of cloves. . . . The cloves are said to be pleasant to the taste when they are fresh. The islanders feed on them, and they never fall ill or grow old. It is also said that they dress in the leaves of a tree that grows only on that island and is unknown to other people.”

The traders — Indians, Chinese, Indonesians — who knew where to find them kept their source a secret. They had no interest in sharing information with potential poachers. Since it was believed that spices, like all plants, could grow only in one location, the desire to pry open their hiding place was all the more ferocious. The concept of transplantation was an alien one, even to distinguished scientists like the 17th century German naturalist Georgius Rumphius, who spent five decades in the East Indies working for the Dutch East India Company: “Lord God, when assigning each country its proper wealth, kept the cloves within the limits of the Moluccan region, whereupon no human diligence can remove them.”

Cloves actually grew in one isolated area in the Molucca Islands, the Spice Islands east of Indonesia. They were located on five tiny volcanic islands of this chain. Ternate and Tidore, the most prized of these isles, were thrilling to observe. Each was a “rugged, towering volcanic cone forested with clove trees and encircled by treacherous coral reefs,” writer Charles Corner described them. A “cannonshot” from the ocean, as the Indian physician Garcia D’Orta put it, the clove trees were nourished by moist breezes and fed by monsoon rains.

The wild spice trees, which bloomed after the fifth or sixth year, thrived on the sandy soil, enriched with volcanic ash. At their most fragrant, they gave the forest a delightful aroma. After the islands were located, ship passengers reported smelling cloves long before land was sighted.

The earliest traders with the Moluccas were Asian mariners and merchants. China was the oldest civilization conversant with the clove. Indonesian sailors carried spicy wares from the Moluccas to the Celestial Kingdom. The Chinese invented colorful names for these imports. “Chicken tongue aromatic” was an early term. Later, the clove was known as “nail incense.”

The Chinese respected the clove’s curative powers. Guessing correctly that it was a potent anesthetic, people employed the spice to treat toothaches. Cloves also enjoyed a reputation as a breath cleanser. The government’s official pharmacologist, Su Gong, urged in the seventh century A.D. that those seeking an audience with the emperor sweeten their mouths with cloves. The spice was also considered an excellent tonic for the stomach.

Perfumes and incenses were distilled from its oils. The clove, it was said, was also an aphrodisiac. The spice’s aromatic and medicinal blessings took precedence over any culinary benefits. In time, Chinese cooks blended cloves with spices like star anise, fennel, and cinnamon to make five spice powder. A condiment that was supposed to encompass the whole range of flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, hot – five-spice powder lent its fragrance to barbecued, braised, and roasted meats.

In Indian culture great stock was also placed in the clove both as antiseptic and anesthetic. The “strong scented plant,” as it was described in Sanskrit, was supposed to ward off bad breath and indigestion. “One who wants clean, fresh fragrant breath must keep nutmeg and cloves in the mouth,” an Indian text prescribed. Preparations containing cloves were attractive solutions for tooth decay, bad breath, and poor gums. Even in modern India, sophisticated women suck on cloves to sweeten their breath. “You will often see fashionable young misses take out little silver boxes from their little silver purses, remove cloves and cardamom from them, and delicately place these spices on their tongues when mouth fresheners seem suddenly willed for,” culinary writer Madhur Jaffrey observes.

The love of paan, a traditional Indian digestif, reflected long-standing beliefs that cloves and other spices soothed the stomach. A mixture that often includes cloves and such spices as fennel seed and cardamom, along with tobacco, coconut, and rose pastes, is placed in the folds of the heart-shaped betel leaf. Bulging with aromatics, the leaf is folded into a triangular shape. A clove is stuck into the leaf to hold the folds together. It’s like a “toothpick,” my friend Farooq Munir commented. The paan, clove and all, is popped into the mouth to chew on and savor. An Indian friend introduced me to the treat one afternoon on my visit to a large Asian neighborhood in the English town of Leicester. I tried to be obliging, but I couldn’t take the acrid flavor. The mango he offered me to suck on was a more appealing refreshment.

Taking paan was once a favorite pastime among royals and nobles intent on freshening their breath. India’s Moghul emperors gave paan as a royal favor to important guests. In elegant homes today, hostesses may offer it to guests as an after dinner refreshment from a silver tray. The constituents of paan are kept in brass or silver boxes called paandaans, which have special compartments for the different flavorings.

Paan has evolved into a common snack sold in corner shops or by paan wallahs, street corner vendors, as well as by hawkers in trucks who ring a bell to announce themselves. They ask customers for their choice—sada (plain) or meetha (sweet). The leaf is enjoyed throughout the day, frequently with addictive pleasure. Paan produces a numbing effect, no doubt intensified by the clove’s anesthetic properties.

To many Indian cooks, the flavor and aroma of cloves are inseparable from its health rewards. Chef and Bombay native Kirakaumae B. Kambe, who has cooked at some of India’s elegant hotels and prepared meals for government officials and other notables, swears by the clove’s healing effects. He touts laung (its Hindu name) as beneficial for the teeth, tongue, and stomach. When your nose is stuffed up, Kambe says, a clove will clear up the congestion.

He approached cooking zealously. Spiced dishes could be both appetizing and restorative, he insisted. Powdered cloves were a key component of the garam masala (“warming spices”), the spice mixture he deployed to heat up the chicken curry he made for a local Washington café. A few whole cloves added to pilafs, he said, sharpened their aroma. One afternoon I enjoyed one of his specialties, keema, a ground beef plate laced with cumin and ginger and sparked with cloves.

Europe’s trading empires would not sit idly on the sidelines and allow their Asian and Arabic competitors to gobble up the spices of the Moluccas. The Portuguese, who had already found the direct sea route around the Cape to India, were not satisfied with their spice holdings along the country’s southwest coast. Already hauling black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, they set their sights eastward toward the treasure trove of more expensive aromatics: cloves, nutmeg, and mace.

The Spice Islands might be hidden, but their riches were on display in the harbor of Malacca, the bustling port on the Malay peninsula near Singapore. Dhows from India and Arabia and Chinese junks, pulled along by monsoons and trade winds, stopped at the entrepôt to buy and sell the market’s enticing products. The port, Portuguese official Tomé Pires wrote, “is at the end of the monsoons, where you find what you want, and sometimes more than you are looking for.” From Malacca, cloves and nutmeg were carried west to the Mediterranean, often in Muslim vessels. The middlemen exchanged their spices with Venetian buyers in Alexandria and other ports. The “merchants of Venice” then sold the items to customers in Paris, Nuremberg, and other medieval cities.

Seizing Malacca would accomplish a number of objectives for the Portuguese. They would control the lucrative traffic to and from this commercial crossroads. Their Venetian rivals would also lose their grip on the spice trade. “Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” Tomé Pires observed. At the same time, they could fulfill their burning desire to wreak revenge on the hated “Moors.” The Muslims, who were now interfering with the trading ambitions of the Portuguese, had dominated their country for more than 300 years. This was not simply a war for spices: It was a fight to the end between Christians and infidels.

In 1511, the Portuguese mobilized a vast force — 50 ships, 800 soldiers, 800 Indian archers — to conquer Malacca. The armada bombarded the port, waged a brutal campaign on land, and quickly achieved victory. The military plundered the city’s luxuries, historian Charles Corn recounts: “They seized warehouses of golden chairs, intricately fashioned jewelry, gold nuggets, precious stones, silks, two thousand bronze cannon, brocaded howdahs.” The occupiers savored their rout. By overthrowing the city-state’s ruling Muslim sultan, the Portuguese had established a Christian beachhead in a growing Islamic region.

But the conquerors’ lust for spices had not yet been sated. Why not grab the spoils at their source, in the Moluccas themselves? The Portguese were contemptuous of the islanders. Their views were typified by the opinions of the 16th century historian Joao de Barros: “The people are of a tawny complexion, have lank hair, are robust in person . . .  addicted to war. Altogether they are a lascivious people, false and ungrateful. Such is their pride and presumption that they will abate nothing from necessity; nor will they submit, except to the sword that cuts them. Finally, these islands, according to the account given by our people, are a warren of every evil, and contain nothing good but their clove tree.”

These prejudices, however, were no obstacle to the Iberians’ acquisitive pursuit of the prized aromatics.

Although they esteemed the lofty spice trees, the Moluccans had little appetite for the cloves themselves. The evergreen had a deeper, emotional meaning to the people. Many islanders marked the birth of their children by planting a tree. A child’s fortune, they believed, was bound up with the welfare of the tree.

Another ritual, uncovered by 19th century anthropologist James Frazer, reveals how invested the Moluccans were in the fertility of the trees: “When the state of the clove plantation indicates that the crop is likely to be scanty, the men go naked into the plantations by night, and there seek to fertilise the trees precisely as they would impregnate women, while at the same time they call out ‘More Cloves.’”

Chance, not strategy, led to the Portuguese takeover of the Moluccas. Antonio de Serrao, a captain and former court page, stumbled on the fabled isles. The shipwrecked officer, who had stolen a junk from marauding pirates, made his way to the clove-rich island of Ternate in 1512. He curried the favor of the Muslim sultan and soon became unofficial prime minister. Serrao exulted over his idyllic home: “ I have found a New World, richer, greater, and more beautiful than that of Vasco da Gama,” he wrote.

The imperial groundwork laid, the Portuguese set up a clove “factory” (a trading post) on Ternate and built a fortress there in 1524. The good feelings between rulers and ruled on the island during the early years, however, gave way to hatred and violence. The colonials mistreated the locals and aggressively pushed their Christianity on the Muslim faithful.

The new lords of the Moluccas hid the location of their possession from their rivals. The Portuguese drew up nautical charts to lure foreign vessels into shipwrecks. Finally, the once shadowy isles were clearly marked on Western maps. The Portuguese maintained their control of the Spice Islands for a 100 years.

Some of the Portuguese developed a taste for what was primarily a trading commodity for the empire. The 16th century physician Garcia d’Orta was struck by their fancy: “When the cloves are green the Portuguese who live in Maluco make a conserve of them with vinegar and salt, which they call achar; and they also preserve them in sugar. I have eaten them and they are good. The Portuguese women, living in Maluco, distill water with the green cloves, which is very fragrant and a good cordial. It would be a good thing to introduce it to Portugal.”

They also discovered an attraction cloves held for many other cultures, d’Orta observed. “Women are much addicted to chewing cloves to make the mouth smell sweet, and not only Indian women but also Portuguese.”

Some doubted whether the conquest of the clove was worth the price. “Cast your eyes over the numberless scattered islands of these eastern seas,” the 16th century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes implored his readers. “Find Ternate and Tidore — identify its burning peak, throwing out waves of fire — and there you will see the fiery clove trees, bought at the cost of Portuguese blood.”

Next month Part II will continue with the story of the  Dutch wresting control of the Spice Islands from the Portguese. Cloves arrive on European dining tables.


Hunting for Cloves

Dukem (1114-1118 U St., NW; 202-667-8735), a popular Ethiopian restaurant that also sells ingredients like containers of tea spices (cloves, cardamom, cinnamon).

Habesha Market and Carry Out (1919 9th St., NW; 202-232-1919), a comfortable dining room patronized by Ethiopian cab drivers and families alike is located in “Little Ethiopia.” I sampled Awaze Tibs, a plate of sliced beef in a peppery sauce flavored with cloves. (In spite of its name, Habesha has a sit-down restaurant.)