Like a gentle breeze of the east wind arriving with the sweet smell of cloves.
—Imru’ al-Qays, sixth century CE

At the end of the 19th century, the East African archipelago of Zanzibar was the capital of cloves. Ninety percent of the world’s cloves grew there. People used cloves for numbing a toothache, seasoning a biryani or pulao rice dish or even for stringing into an ornamental, aromatic necklace. According to sailor lore, when the wind was right, it carried the scent of cloves far out into the waters of the Indian Ocean. 

“The strongest tasting of all the pungent spices,” says Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice & Herb Bible. Cloves are “warm, aromatic, camphor-like and faintly peppery,” he continues. And for their flavor? “Words like medicinal, warming, sweet, lingering and numbing come to mind,” lending “palate-cleansing freshness and sweet, spicy flavor.”

Cloves are the dried and unopened flower buds of a species of evergreen tree, genus Syzygium and—no surprise here—family aromaticum. In Swahili-speaking Zanzibar, they are called karafuu, which comes from both the Arabic qaranful and the older Greek karuóphullon, meaning “nut leaf.” Latin, however, looked straight at its shape and dubbed it clavus—nail—from which we have “clove” today in English. 

Spice - Cloves
Zanzibar farmers harvest karafuu in September, October and November by gently picking the buds, which grow in clusters of 10 to 15 on trees that can reach as high as 15 meters, requiring nimble climbing. Harvesters then spread the buds on mats to dry in the sun. As they dry, they release their redolence to the sea-bound breezes. They also lose about two-thirds of their weight, and a kilogram may contain up to 10,000 buds. “When dried, the top part where the bud is has small spikes, a bit like the clasps on an engagement ring. When fully dry, you can feel the sharpness of these spikes when held firmly in your hand,” says Hemphill, whose childhood was spent amid the herbs and spices of his parents, who were pioneers in the business.

But Zanzibar is not where cloves originated. It is perhaps just a curious coincidence the sixth-century-CE Arab poet Imru’ al-Qays, quoted at the top of this article, wrote of cloves’ “sweet smell” coming on an “east wind,” for indeed it was then that cloves grew exclusively on islands 10,000 kilometers due east of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Some 500 years after the poet, Egyptian author Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah came closer’ to the mark thanks to merchants who hinted at but ultimately hid their source. “Somewhere near India is the island containing the Valley of Cloves,” he wrote in Kitab al-‘Adja’ib al-kabir (The Great Book of Marvels).

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 actual source lay amid the same volcanic islands in the modern Indonesian province of North Maluku that is also the origin of nutmeg, the third spice in this series. Also known as the Moluccas or the Spice Islands, North Maluku is an archipelago made up of some 1,000 islands.

The first-known written reference to cloves, however, comes from China. During the Han dynasty, from 206 BCE to 220 CE, clove’s minty astringency freshened the breath of courtiers speaking to the emperor. It was around the second century CE that records note Arab traders were making cloves available to the Mediterranean region through the Egyptian port of Alexandria as well as others. Along with trade came uses aromatic, medicinal and culinary. 

“Clove was already well known in Arabia in the seventh century,” explains translator and scholar Charles Perry. Referencing the line in the famous ode by al-Qays, he points out that “this quote fails to prove that clove was being used in cookery rather than perfumery, but I have little doubt that it was.” In the 10th century CE, the Iraqi Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq listed cloves in Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cookery), the earliest-known Arabic cookbook. 

“By the 13th century CE clove was very common in cookery throughout the Arab world,” says Perry, who recently translated the popular Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-Habib, a 13th-century-CE Syrian cookbook, into English as Scents and Flavors. A trio of recipes from the anonymous cookbook rely on cloves for “sweetening breath” as well as for incense, handwashing powders and perfumed soaps. Perry also points to An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century, which he also translated, that calls for cloves in dishes poultry, lamb and sweets.

With the founding of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1403 CE, the port of Melaka, in present-day southwestern Malaysia, began attracting more merchants carrying spices, including those who would row in bearing dried clove buds by the tonne, from the Malukus 3,000 kilometers east. The spice trade attracted Arabs, Javanese and Chinese, among others around the Indian Ocean and beyond. The market prospered on these terms until European ships sailed in, looking to exploit the valuable commidity.

The Portuguese in 1522 became the first Europeans to set up forts on those Malukus that grew cloves, and the story of the colonial takeover of the clove trade bears much in common with the stories of cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. The struggle over cloves, however, took place mainly on the island of Ambon in the Banda Sea. The Ambonese, after being forced to cede land to the Portuguese and contend with their aggressions for nearly a century, in the early 17th century found themselves facing the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). Like the nutmeg growers on the Banda Islands, the Ambonese lost all control of their trade when the VOC decreed that cloves could only be grown on Ambon and enforced a policy of extirpatie (extirpation): All trees not controlled by the VOC were destroyed. “Burning of young trees was the VOC way of regulating supply and keeping prices high,” says the Indonesian spice trader Karen Faroland. 

On Ambon this violated more than economics. By custom Ambonese parents planted trees when children were born and believed their lives were thus linked to the lives of the trees. This, Faroland says, was part of what inspired the unsuccessful 1817 revolt led by Ambonese soldier Thomas Matulessy, also known as Kapitan Pattimura (or simply Pattimura), who is today a national hero. 

It was the French who broke the Dutch monopoly in 1770 when an administrator on Isle de France (now Mauritius) and Ile Bourbon (now Réunion) smuggled out some seedlings. They thrived, and their descendants were transplanted to the Seychelles, Réunion and Madagascar.

Today Indonesia is the world’s leading producer of cloves.

How cloves came to Zanzibar is popularly attributed to a Zanzibari Arab named Harmali bin Saleh, who in 1812 introduced them from Réunion and set up clove plantations. He did not, however, get to enjoy the fruits of his labors for long: His plantations were confiscated by the sultan, Said bin Sultan of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, whose realm included Zanzibar. Bin Saleh’s loss proved Zanzibar’s gain in the 1830s when Bin Sultan moved the sultanate’s capital from Muscat, Oman, to Zanzibar. The clove industry flourished even more when the sultan promoted its expansion to supplant the slave trade, Hemphill points out. “To stop Zanzibar’s dependence on the slave trade, Sultan Said decreed that three clove trees would have to be planted for every coconut palm on Zanzibar and Pemba, making Zanzibar one of the world’s largest producers by the mid-19th century,” says Hemphill. 

Zanzibar dominated the world market until 1964 when revolution led to its merger with what is now Tanzania. Clove production plummeted as the new government nationalized and redistributed plantations. Although yields crept up, they never came close to their former outputs. By the 1980s the islands were focusing on tourism. Today’s clove production of some 5,550 tonnes a year still, however, makes cloves Zanzibar’s top cash crop. 

Spotting opportunity, Madagascar and Indonesia both expanded clove production from the 1960s, and today, Indonesia is the world’s leading producer at around 112,000 tonnes, or 80 percent of the global output. Yet 90 percent of it sells on the local market to the Indonesian tobacco industry to produce kretek cigarettes, which blend tobacco with ground cloves. 

Via a Zoom call from her office in Bali where she sources and exports high-quality organic Indonesian spices, Faroland points out that the clove producers in North Sulawesi have earned their place as not only the largest but also the ones that grow the best-quality cloves. These are, she says, larger and better-looking, and they contain higher percentages of clove’s active ingredient, eugenol, an essential oil that can be used to flavor food or as herbal medicine or aromatic. 

In the Indonesian kitchen, cloves are key to the popular pineapple-filled cookies punctured with a whole clove called kue nastar, explains Faroland. “We serve nastar during Lebaran,” she says, using the popular Indonesian name for ‘Id al-Fitr, the celebration following Ramadan. Cloves are also found in savory cooking, “mostly used in dishes made of goat, mutton, seafood and offal,” Faroland continues. Pounded with other spices, they go into the aromatic, curry-like gulai and soto betawi, a famous Jakarta soup made with beef, tripe, coconut milk, galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass and spices that often include cloves. 

Just like the ancient sailors who could once smell cloves from out at sea, she says, “you can smell soto betawi from the parking lot.” And that is a modern ode to the rich power of cloves anywhere.