When I think of cloves I think of hot apple cider or a large Christmas ham, and yet, this spice, which many people associate with heavier, perhaps cold-weather foods, actually originated in what are known as the Spice Islands of Indonesia. It goes to show how Westerners have incorporated tropical foods and spices into their customs and cuisines and have come to rely on their presence in supermarkets to flavor their dishes.
Cloves are used in cuisines and medicinal practices throughout the world. They are greatly used in Indian, Middle Eastern and North African dishes, as well as in the Indian healing practice of Ayurveda and in Chinese medicine. Like black pepper, cloves were highly prized in the Roman Empire and Middle Ages, and were an important commodity traded along the spice route from Asia to Europe.
Cloves also seem to have interesting medicinal properties. Cloves are known to have pain reducing qualities, as well as chemicals that help increase the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus facilitating digestion. They are also believed to help the respiratory system, which is why they are made into types of cigarettes and smoked in Indonesia.
Cloves are actually the unopened, dried flower bud of the evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum. A clove brings a slightly sweet yet astringent taste to food, which gives it great applicability to many different types of dishes ranging from sweet to salty. Yet while cloves bring an interesting flavor to food, it is important to know that they have a very strong flavor, therefore it is important to use them in small quantities so as to not overpower other ingredients with which you are cooking.
Combine cloves, cinnamon, and some dry lemon peel to create lovely, fragrant, home-made potpourri.