Little things in every day life in Oman tend to go back hundreds of years. They open up stories that are fascinating and contribute both to culture and history. The reference here is to cloves – a spice that is found in every Omani kitchen. Stop at any of the hundreds of shawarma outlets in the country and the aroma of cloves floats up and fills the senses together with the aroma of the meat being grilled on the vertical spit. The smell is a high note, distinct and full of flavour. How did a dry and arid country with little else than dates and sardines introduce cloves into their diet? And where did it come from?

Like many of the other introductions to life in Oman, it was the spirit of adventure of the Omani sailor that brought the clove to the country. It is difficult to give an exact timeline to it but it was certainly hundreds of years before the western powers ventured into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The Omani mariner could have come upon the clove when the nakhooda anchored for fresh water and food among the legendary Spice Islands now forming part of Indonesia. Or, he could have come across it at the court of one of the Chinese emperors. Cloves were in use in China from around the 3rd century BC and they were also known to the Romans. The Chinese kept a single clove in the mouth to sweeten the breath. It took hundreds of years from there for the western world to understand the economic worth of the spice trade. By the time the European countries woke up to cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper they were already a part of the Omani diet. The foreign powers waged spice wars that were fought ruthlessly on both land and at sea.

At the end of a voyage, many an Omani sailor would have put a few cloves in his pocket and taken it home to his wife and instructed her to add a little of it to the family cooking. She must have experimented with it and tried it in turn on rice, lentils, fish and meat. There is no way one can put a date to when it started but it was decidedly hundreds of years before the rest of the world stumbled on the flavour. Cloves gradually became ubiquitous in Omani cooking. The spice is referred to as coronfil (or qaranful) on the grocery shelves in Oman. The name bears a close resemblance to the name for cloves used on the West Coast of India – karambu. Both names again take their source from the botanical name for the tree Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).

For a brief period in history, clove cultivation was confined to just two islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese and then the Dutch held the global clove trade  monopoly. To control the world market, they eliminated the trees from all but one or two islands like Amboina and Ternate.  In the second half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to the Indian Ocean islands and to the New World breaking the Dutch monopoly. Thanks to this, clove trees began to thrive in several parts of the world. As a trading nation Oman watched these developments with keen interest.

In the late 17th century, Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman.  Sayyid Said Bin Sultain bin Al Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Bu Saidi or Said Sayyid as he was popularly known was born in 1791 and came to the throne in 1806.  Said Sayyid made Zanzibar his capital city in 1832. A few years into his reign cloves found their way into Zanzibar and the cultivation of this spice tree started on the east coast of Africa. The temperature, rainfall and humidity were ideal for the crop and the trees took root without problems. In 1828, Said Sayyid visited Zanzibar and Pemba and acquired two properties on which cloves were cultivated. During his lifetime these two places became the largest clove producers in the world.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, clove trees were introduced to Zanzibar and Said had the good business sense to grow them as a plantation crop for export …..” writes Patricia Rosso in her book Oman and Muscat. The ruler’s efforts must have been so successful that he made Zanzibar his primary residence after 1841. American ships from Salem Massachusetts had been trading with Zanzibar for several years. During the reign of Said Sayyid, the US government took the initiative to make trade relations easier by removing the customs duties payable on its exports. President Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts to Muscat to begin trade talks with Said Sayyid. It was not difficult for the Omani merchant to trade in cloves or carry cloves to different markets. But the fortunes of the clove trade were mired in both politics and the vagaries of economics.

In 1861 after the death of Said Sayyid, Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.  Cloves continued to dominate the fortunes of Zanzibar and contributed in great measure to the economy of the island. A hundred years later, the short lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba created a flag that had two cloves in a circle of green on a full red base.

While political and economic fortunes changed with the passage of time, the properties of cloves remained constant. The clove still continues to play a dominant role in the kitchens of Oman. Today, cloves lend flavour to everything from Bizar Al Omani  (Omani Spice Mix) to Bizar Shuwa (Shuwa Spice Mix). The list of Omani recipes that need a few cloves to round off the flavours is by no means limited. They are found in recipes originating in every one of the regions of the country. Traditional preparations like Foaq Al Aish (Over the Rice) and Tahat Al Aish (Under the Rice) use whole cloves to lend the distinct flavour.  Its whole cloves that go into the Ouzi or Baryani and the Ka’ata Bil Laham as well. In some of the preparations the cloves are left whole. In others they are crushed in a mortar to release the flavours before adding to the food or as in the Spice Mix mechanically pulverised at a commercial food factory to come up with the right blend. Cloves are added to rice and lentil dishes as well but are not very popular for the catch of the day.

Clove production in Zanzibar has diminished and Indonesia has regained its former status producing nearly 20% of the world crop. Other countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka and India have also got into the business. Clove prices shoot up every time there is a shortfall in one of the major producing areas. For those living in Oman who will always continue to use the spice, the comfort is that it takes just one or two of these spice buds to flavour an entire meal.