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Cloves: An early Chinese Spice

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 13 and 14

A whole clove is an unopened bud of an evergreen tree. Syzygium aromaticum is one botanical name of this very aromatic spice-member of the Myrtle family. Another and older one is Caryophyllus aromaticum. The Chinese knew this flavoring item as early as the 3rd century BCE. They indicated it was a foreign product and called the buds of this tree the 'chicken-tongue' spice. During early imperial times, those that came before the emperor, subject or staff, were required to chew one or more of them to sweeten their breath, remove any bad odors, and not offend their ruler.

Cloves were traded on the Silk Road. Then they were popular, whole or pulverized, and used in foods, medicines, perfumes, and hair dressings. Also popular were the open flowers of the clove tree. These are purple and sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of clove.’ Less important, though also traded and used, was clove oil, an item not used in the Chinese spice larder. What is, are the buds and flowers, and sometimes the branches and leaves. These latter two items are rich in various clove oils, some called essential oils. Eugenol is the most popular and primarily a non-culinary item.

Imported into China thousands of years ago, ding xiang or cloves are small dark tan to brown dried buds with rounded heads and spikes at their other end. Hence, that 'chicken-tong' name. Most are used dried. Whole cloves are picked when pink and the bottom spiked end already somewhat nail-like. The fresher the clove, the hotter and spicier it tastes when first chewed, and the greater its anesthetic properties as they slightly numb both mouth and tongue.

The Chinese use cloves alone or in combination with other seasonings in their cooking, baking, and pickling. They are not alone, the French use them in their quatres e’pices, the Asian Indians in garum masala. The Chinese mixture is called 'five-spice powder.' See an article called 'Five Spice Magic' in Flavor and Fortune,’s Volume 3(3) on pages 5 and 6. It and other related topics are listed in the index at this magazine’s website. Go see and use it at: www.flavorandfortune.com Keep in mind that only complete articles from the first years of publication are on the web,. But that will grow soon because the intent is to be five or six years behind publication and to post them when no copies are still available for sale. An article about cinnamon appeared in a Flavor and Fortune previous issue, Volume 10(1) on pages 9, 10, and 38.

Quality cloves are picked just before the flower bud opens, then dried in the sun. They vary considerably in size, appearance, and pungency depending upon age and where they grew. Fine ground cloves are made from the crown of each bud.

From a Chinese traditional medicinal perspective, cloves are considered very heating. They prescribe them to aid digestion, as an antiseptic, for their antifungal properties, and as an anesthetic. Considered a tonic and a stimulant, they are also used for cholera and for diarrhea, and for intestinal disorders in infants. Externally, they have other uses. For example, when made into a poultice, they recommend them for cracked nipples, scorpion stings, and to relieve toothaches if there is an abscess or cavity that is causing the pain.

In the culinary, the Chinese use cloves whole or ground when cooked with meats, poultry, and fish, and sometimes in vegetable stews. In addition, they use them whole when making pickling brines. As five-spice powder, only small amounts of ground cloves are used because they can be bitter if used in excessive amounts. Whether alone or in combination with other spices, cloves are mostly long-cooked.

Some report they can not imagine the taste of cloves in Chinese food. They need to read labels, particularly those for the complex bottled and long-cooked fermented sauces. They are often an ingredient in Chinese barbecue sauces, several brands of hoisin sauce, and in fermented fish mixtures such as those known as sa cha sauces. They can also find cloves in older recipes, particularly northern ones.

The recipes that follow are good examples of clove use. Most are easy to make; we hope you do, and that you enjoy them.
Clove-flavored Shrimp Pancakes
10 medium-sized shrimp, diced
3 scallions, diced
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 large egg, beaten well
1 Tablespoon of corn oil
1. Mix all the ingredients except the corn oil. Add one and a half cups of cold water and mix well, then allow this to rest for ten minutes.
2. Dip a brush in the oil and paint the bottom of a preheated eight-inch pan. Pour in a quarter of the batter. Cook until almost set before flipping this pancake over. Fry an additional minute or two and then turn it onto a flat plate, folding it in half at that time. Keep warm in a warm not a hot oven.
3. Repeat three more times brushing the pan with oil before each use. Then serve.
Spiced Vegetarian Meatballs
3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
1 can cream of mushroom soup or a cup and a half of cooled thick white sauce mixed with two tablespoons diced white mushrooms
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1 cup chopped Chinese olive pits, pine nuts, or walnuts
3 eggs, beaten
1 envelope chicken or ham bouillon powder
1 cup corn oil
1 green pepper, seeded and cut into one-inch pieces
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into one-inch pieces
2 cucumbers, seeded and cut into one-inch pieces
1 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained (optional)
1 can baby corn, drained and cut into one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons chili paste with garlic
2 Tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 tomato, peeled and seeded, then diced into half-inch pieces
4 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with six tablespoons cold water
1. Mix oatmeal, mushroom soup or the white sauce and mushroom mixture, garlic, onion, nuts, eggs, and bouillon powder. Let stand for half an hour, then shape into one-inch balls.
2. Heat oil and fry the oatmeal balls in three or four batches. Drain them on paper towels, reserving one tablespoon of the oil.
3. Heat the reserved oil and fry the peppers, cucumbers, pineapple, and the corn until heated through, then return the oatmeal balls to the wok or pan. 4. Add the rest of the ingredients and boil until thickened. Then serve.
Stewed Chicken Hearts
1 pound chicken hearts, trimmed of excess fat
2 scallions, each one tied in a knot
1 star anise
10 whole cloves
1 clove garlic, cut into four pieces
6 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
6 Tablespoons chicken broth
1/2 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
1/2 Tablespoon Chinese brown sugar, crushed
1. Put all of the ingredients except the sugar into a one-quart pot. Bring them almost to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for an hour and a half. Test the heart to see if they are tender, if not, simmer everything for another half hour.
2. Remove scallions, star anise, cloves, and garlic slices. Then add the sugar and reduce the liquid until it just coats the chicken hearts. Then serve.

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