The very moment I stepped into the Jakarta airport, I fell under the spell of a mysterious aroma perfuming the air. It was sultry and smoky with sweetly floral undertones. “Is that incense?” I wondered aloud.
My Singapore-based sister in law, laughed. “You’re smelling the cloves in the kretek cigarettes. Everyone smokes them here. When the cloves get hot, they pop. Look at the silk shirts the men are wearing. You can see the burn holes.”
For centuries, cloves have been grown on the tiny islands of Ternate and Tidore, part of the Moluccan archipelago in the Indian Ocean that belongs to Indonesia. Now, though, spice trees are being destroyed by “voracious insect larvae known as stem borers,’ says journalist Anita Rachman. In “Indonesia Rushes to Save a National Treasure,” (The Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2015, p. A14), she writes that over 1 million clove trees, about 15 percent of those planted, are sick or dying.
J. Audrey Leatemia, head of the plant pest lab at Pattimura University which is searching for a cure, told Rachman that “if these current conditions persist, we predict that in 10 to 20 years the population of mature clove trees will decrease by more than 50 percent.” That, combined with other problems created by aging trees and poor agricultural practices, could destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of small clove farmers.
Ironically, although cloves are an ancient, much coveted culinary and medicinal spice—in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English shed rivers of blood vying for control of the obscure islands where the spice grew abundantly—the big market these days is for use in making kretek cigarettes. Output of machine-rolled cigarettes has increased around 7 percent annually in recent years due to population and economic growth across Southeast Asia, and there is talk of importing cloves from other countries in order to meet demand.
For some Indonesians, this is heresy. As Dahlan Said, chairman of the clove farmers association, told Rachman, “Cloves originate here. Why would we need to import them?” Possible solutions include “planting trees further apart to curb diseases and pests,” weeding more frequently and planting only healthy saplings. One prospective organic pesticide uses soursop seeds and stalk buds from cloves to combat the insect larvae. The race is on.
And in other sad news, the horrific civil war in Syria now appears to have destroyed the production of Aleppo pepper. For a short time, this wondrous spice, made from sun-dried red peppers grown in Syria near the border with Turkey, was the toast of the culinary world for its full, fruity flavor and slow, smoldering burn.
As a substitute, chili lovers are turning to Maras biber, a spicy red pepper that has long been a favorite seasoning in Turkey and much of the eastern Mediterranean. In “Put the Chili On,” (The Wall Street Journal, July 23-34, 2016, p.D6), Jane Black describes ground Maras (pronounced Marash) as “sultry and rich with a slow, subtle heat. Think of it as the Eartha Kitt of chilies.”
Maras peppers are grown in southeastern Turkey near the town of Kahramanmaras, about 125 miles from Aleppo, “where the climate and soil are similar,” says Black. “The peppers are dried in the sun and ground using slow-turning stone wheels much like the ones used to crush olives. The flakes may then be combined with salt and/or oil for a smoother texture”—although the best Maras pepper uses minimal amounts of those additives.
Black suggests using Maras pepper in various ways, from simply sprinkling it over poached or scrambled eggs to combining it in a compound butter with lemon zest, minced shallots and garlic. She likes the idea of rubbing the flavored butter under the skin of a roast chicken or drizzling it over “meaty fish such as tuna or salmon.” (Grilled swordfish would also be delicious this way.)
I have long adored Maras biber not only for its fruity, sun-warmed flavor and slow heat, but also for its tanginess. It’s a much more interesting way of adding heat to any spice blend than, say, a pinch of cayenne pepper which is often fiery hot but lacking in any actual flavor.
You can read more about Maras and other Turkish peppers, as well as a visit to an Istanbul spice merchant, right here on SpiceLines. As well, this is the perfect time of year to try Fire Roasted Sweet Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Soup with Citrus, Basil and Turkish Pepper, using Maras to add a little zing.