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017 Cloves: The Miss Havisham of Spices (Herbs & Spices #2)

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Lavang / Cloves / Syzygium aromaticum

Aromatics, Herbs, Spices Series 2

A dried round bud set securely on it's four pronged short stem. It is the melancholy brown solitaire of spices, an engagement ring waiting to be presented. The bud has not been allowed to bloom. It was plucked and dried before it could become a flower. Like a Dickensian Miss Havisham of spices, it doesn’t let go of its potency. All the unrealised dreams, all the unfulfilled adventures packed tightly into the small bud release when you open a bottle of cloves and inhale its heady, musty and pungent aroma. This aroma travels through the food, and your mouth is filled with its sweet, cooling yet spicy flavour.

Marwari women of a certain generation would invariably have a few pieces of cloves lying around their almariahs. Their sarees and their handkerchiefs would bear the scent of lavang. They would keep the keys to their cupboards in a characteristic ‘gucha’ which jangled at their waists, safely attached to their saree petticoats. This band of women united by the aroma of cloves would carefully bundle their money into their handkerchiefs and then tuck the currency inside their blouses. So in these households and the nearby marketplaces, the currency notes, removed unashamedly from their blouses, given to the dhobis and the fruit and vegetable vendors would also have a faint smell of cloves. The fragrance of the tiny clove buds brings me back to my roots, and unites me with the many marwari women who came before me.

Somewhere in the haze of nostalgia, for me, cloves are also associated with dental care. You can chew on a clove to ease your toothache. I remember for some part of my early childhood, my grandfather would use tooth powder instead of paste. The red and white flatish cylindrical tin of colgate tooth powder had a small round cap that you had to twist to open, and it would lie on his bathroom shelf. Colgate claimed to use “herbal” ingredients such as cloves and cinnamon in their proprietary mix. Even the ‘Vicco Vajradanti’ advertisements of our childhood asserted the use of ayurvedic herbs and roots in their concoctions. However in our misplaced notions of globalism of the early 90’s, many teenagers of my generation used to look down on ‘ayurvedic’ products. Many of us would prefer the so-called opulent soaps such as ‘Lux’ marketed by glamorous film stars, rather than the humble neem-based ‘hamam’ soaps used by our mothers and aunts. In contrast, today there is a pronounced movement to return to plant-based foods and cosmetics. Our spice cupboards are now an invaluable starting point for these earth-friendly brews.The meek clove may as well rise to new heights in the search for home-made toothpastes and powders.

Since cloves are such a powerful spice, my mother uses them sparingly in her cooking. Often she adds only one or two pieces of cloves in a big pot of dal. One of my most favorite recipes with cloves is her moong ki dal palak (split green moong beans with spinach). I did not realise the secret ingredient to that distinctive taste is a piece of clove. Only when I attempted to make her dal myself and failed miserably a couple of times, I realised that i) she uses ghee and not oil for the vaghar, ii) she adds a pinch of haldi to the vaghar to enrich the colour of the dal and iii) most importantly she puts only one clove in the hot ghee. As usual, I had to extract this information from her over numerous phone calls and failed attempts, since the original recipe that she gave me did not mention any of these three key points! The only way to actually learn my mother’s recipes is to attempt to cook them numerous times.

When my son was a baby, I would lovingly make him yellow-moong dal khichadi in a tiny pressure cooker which I bought just for his food (I was such an enthusiastic new mother!). As if on cue, he would promptly reject my offering, refusing to even open his mouth and would vehemently turn his head away from the extended spoon. So you can imagine my surprise when he gulped down a bowl of the same khichadi in my mother’s house! I tried again and again to replicate her recipe in my kitchen, but failed to get my son’s approval. Then one evening, I decided to spy on my mother while she was cooking. Into the pressure cooker went that naughty little piece of clove, swimming happily in a generous dollop of ghee. She also added heaps of her grandmotherly love and stirred the rice and dal calmly and with utmost tenderness. Before serving my son the khichadi, she made sure to remove the incriminatory piece of clove, so that it would not come in his mouth and startle him with it's spiciness. In contrast to her measured cooking, I would rush to make my son’s khichadi, hassled by his hungry cries, and the mounting loads of laundry and dishes waiting for me. I would put too much pressure on myself to get it ‘right’ and feel so disappointed when he would reject my food. That evening in my mother’s kitchen, the humble and quiet clove bud taught me the importance of cooking with calmness, tenderness, patience and love.

Do you use whole or powdered cloves? What is your favorite sweet or savoury dish that highlights the magic of cloves?

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