Breath Mint Of The Ancients: How Clove Became Popular In China
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Many cultures and peoples today employ use aromatic herbs in a variety of products like soaps, pomanders, bath-water fresheners, potpourri, sachets, incense, scented candles, and natural breath fresheners. Breath mints were first introduced sometime in the 18th century in England, but, prior to that, people across the world had different solutions for bad breath. Over 4000 years ago, ancient communities would suck on whole cloves to refresh their breath after a heavy meal.

Cloves are, of course, a popular spice in India and used widely in our food, a regular ingredient in both savory and sweet dishes. Apart from having great medicinal properties, cloves also give off a pleasant aroma that made them a popular choice as a breath freshener. The spicy yet sweet flavor has been characterized as “intense enough to burn the palate,” though many also find it to be a good oral anesthetic, maybe even an aphrodisiac. Ground cloves are commonly used in many sweet foods, while whole cloves are commonly used in curries and other liquids due to their flavor and visual appeal. 

Usage records for cloves in China date back to the early second century BCE, under the Han period. They were likely introduced to China by way of a number of different cultural channels, one of which was the seafaring people of Nusantao. Those seafarers are thought to be the progenitors of modern Filipinos. Around the second century CE, the spice made its way to India, where it was given the Sanskrit name Kalika Phala. In India, over the centuries, cloves have found medicinal value as treatment for minor conditions like toothaches, vomiting, nausea, and indigestion. By way of trade the Sanskrit name eventually spread to Arabic-speaking countries, where it would become known as karanful. 

By the first century CE, people could buy cloves in Greek and Egyptian markets.Over the next two centuries, Phoenician merchants spread cloves across all of the Mediterranean region. Later, Jewish merchants like the Radanites ensured their spread across Europe.

However, cloves did not find much favor in China until the early 18th century, when Dutch traders started to import the spice from India and Indonesia instead of the traditional Southeast Asian suppliers such as Java and Zanzibar. It makes for an interesting story to trace the growing usage of clove in China, where it became prominent for a short while before falling back into relative obscurity (spice-wise).

One fascinating anecdote regarding cloves is that the Chinese nobles and aristocrats used them to sweeten their breath before meeting with the emperor in his court. Not unlike the breath mints we use today, cloves were utilized as a mouth refresher in oldentimes in China. 

Clove, a Favored Spice in China

Cloves are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, but they are now grown in tropical climates around the world. The Chinese have traded with Southeast Asia for centuries, and many spices came over in due course of time. So why did clove suddenly become so popular? Experts suggest three main reasons. Firstly, a Chinese emperor was interested in the medical properties of clove and actively promoted its use. Second, the Chinese government wanted to increase its revenue from the import of spices, and clove was a good candidate for this. Thirdly, clove could be grown locally in China, which meant that the country would not have to rely on imports.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese established a monopoly on the spice trade in Asia. After they were expelled from Japan in 1639 and the Dutch East India Companywas formed, the Dutch started to trade cloves with Japan. In 1661, the Dutch East India Company upstaged the Portuguese, establishing a new monopoly on the clove trade. That led to the Chinese emperor giving the Dutch East India Company an exclusive 15-year contract to import cloves. Two years later, the Dutch East India Company established a permanent base in Taiwan, and began growing clove trees in the nearby Penghu Islands. This made it easier to ship the spice to China.

Cloves proved so popular in China that people tried using them as a cure for all sorts of ailments, from the common cold to diabetes. This led to cloves being overusedto the point of saturation, andpeople began losing interest in it. Another major shift that occurred was Chinese medical doctors became less reliant on herbs and keener on prescribing synthetic drugs. That meant cloves dropped further in popularity. Additionally, the price of cloves in China also fell to new lows after the Chinese government started growing them in the 1980s.The once-prized clove has lost its prestige ever since, and is now the everyman of spices.