Cinnamon: The Ordinary Exotic

20170809 spicedrawer

Spicy doesn’t mean what it used to mean when I was growing up. In the bland cooking from the midwest and the 1970s, spicy referred to garlic, pepper, and perhaps oregano. The famous “spicy meatball” Alka Seltzer commercial was both in praise of and a warning against partaking of strong flavors. Forty years later, Americans have come to embrace spice. We have spice trends – the hottest four spices in 2016 were apparently sumac, turmeric, mace, and za’atar – I don’t make this stuff up, folks. We are a literal melting pot of cuisines imported from so many cultures. But the most ordinary spice I grew up with also turns out to be one of the most medicinal, ancient, sought after, delicious, and versatile ones from around the world: cinnamon.

Cassia and cinnamon verum
Most savvy cooks know cinnamon is the inner bark from a species of tree. Some cooks (or expert Googlers) know the distinction between an herb and spice is that herbs come from the leaves and spices come from the seeds, barks, buds, or other parts of the plant. Cinnamon is grown by cutting the stems down to ground level every couple of years in a process called coppicing. Repeatedly cutting the stems leads to a thicker proliferation of new shoots, which is why groves of such small trees and shrubs are also called copses. When cinnamon shoots are harvested, the outer bark is scraped off and beaten off with a hammer, and the inner part pried off with a small crowbar; the inner bark comes off in long (meter) strips which dry in curled rolls called quills.

20170809 simon eugster Cinnamomum_verum
Cinnamomum verum, courtesy Simon Eugster

Wikipedia points out that there are at least two primary types of cinnamon: cinnamomum verum (aka “true cinnamon”) and cassia.  Cinnamomum verum comes from Sri Lanka while cinnamomum cassia, also called Chinese cinnamon, comes from China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Top Cinnamon Exporters 2013
Sri Lanka                  $159M (33%)
Indonesia                  $ 94 M (20%)
China                         $ 92 M (19%)
Vietnam                    $ 72 M (15%)
Netherlands             $ 10 M ( 2%)
USA                            $  8 M ( 2%)

Basically, Sri Lanka – an island country off the southeast coast of India – exports a third of the world’s crop of cinnamon and holds title to “true cinnamon.” The remaining Asian countries export cassia, which is close but not identical. And, apparently, the southern Chinese also use a variation called Cinnamomum loureiroi, which comes from Vietnam. This version is closer to cassia than the Sri Lankan version but the also-labelled Saigon cinnamon has the highest percentage (25%) of cinnamaldehyde, which accounts for the cinnamoniness of the spice. Thus, the Saigon variant is also the most expensive.

Of course, the obvious question is… the Netherlands? Why in the heck are they growing cinnamon in the Netherlands, which by any stretch of the imagination is not tropical, though it is wet.

Enter the Dutch East India Company
Oh, those wacky traders! The clue is in the etymology of the word cinnamon which comes from the tree’s Greek word kinnamomon that came from from the Phoenicians and  Hebrew word qinnamon. Cassia is from the Latin and a variation of Hebrew qatsa, which meant “to strip off bark.” When you think Phoenicians, you visualize ships and those earliest international traders, which clues you in that these were the original merchants who sailed around the cape of Africa to locate spices in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia.

Cinnamon was imported to Egypt by these traders as early as 2000 BCE.  The Egyptians used it as incense, a cooking spice, and in their embalming fluid. Greek poet Sappho referred to the term kasia in an ode, while the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that cinnamon and cassia were guarded by winged serpents, though it sounds a little more fake news than history.

Their collection of cinnamon is still more amazing than this. For where it arises and what earth nourishes it, they are not able to say, but they say that great birds bear the twigs which we call cinnamon, as we learned it from the Phoenicians. The birds bear these to their nests, built from mud on precipitous mountains, where there is no approach for any man. And so, the Arabians devise things as follows. They cut the limbs of cows and donkeys and other beasts of burden, as large as possible, and they carry them to those spots. And after placing them near the nests, they get far away from them.  The birds fly down and bring the limbs of the beasts of burden up to their nests. But those nests unable to bear the weight fall down to the earth; and going to them, they collect the cinnamon. –
Tales from Herodotus, courtesy

Also, Herodotus was wrong about the Arabs who were traders of the spice, not growers. The southern Europeans relied on the Arab trade heavily until that first millennium period when trade was interrupted a tad by that religious thing, the development of Islam, the Crusades, and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Enter Venetian traders, searching for an alternate source that didn’t involve facing scimitars.  The spices that Marco Polo was searching for overland were chiefly pepper and cinnamon, while his Venetian, Florentine, and Genoan sailing colleagues did the same across the seas. Columbus wandered across the Atlantic looking for Ceylon/Sri Lanka as much as for India, though we didn’t end up calling the native Americans Ceylonians.

The Portugese followed the Italians in building a merchant sailing empire, and it was Vasco de Gama who “found” Sri Lanka and developed a large 16th century export business from Sri Lanka, China, and Vietnam. De Gama and the Portugese traded the cinnamon with the islanders. The Dutch, instead, brought ships with guns on them and decided to “own” Ceylon rather than trade with it, so that they could to corner the market with cinnamon exports in the way they had with tea. According to’s History of Cinnamon, the Dutch at one point convinced (i.e. threatened and bribed) the local monarch of Ceylon to destroy all the crops in order so that the Dutch could maintain their monopoly and high price.

The Dutch expanded cultivation and the British, who then had bigger ships, “took” Ceylon from the Dutch and exported cinnamon along with their other crops from India and elsewhere of their worldwide empire. British rule ended in 1972 when the country’s name was changed formerly to Sri Lanka and fortunately for all of us, the cinnamon crop was maintained without fail.

Cinnamon Goes in Everything
Why all the excitement about cinnamon? Practically every cuisine uses it in some core fashion. The Europeans primarily used it for baking, those “traditional” ideas that I recognize from the Betty Crocker Cookbook – pies, rolls, and breads.

But we’ve been exposed to global cultures for so many reasons – me, personally, by moving from Michigan out to the San Francisco area — the rest of the country due to a rise in global tourism, television shows about other cultures, and new varieties of immigrants adding to our melting pot. I played the game of Food Around the World, and cinnamon popped up nearly everywhere:

  • China – five spice powder, a core of many dishes from stir fries to duck, is composed of cinnamon, anise, cloves, pepper and fennel
  • Mexico – the second biggest importer of cinnamon after the US, Mexicans infuse cinnamon into their chocolate, some mole sauces, and certainly sprinkled on churros
  • India – garam masala, a core of many dishes, includes cinnamon, pepper, mace, coriander, cumin, and cardamom (all the “c”s except curry). As with Chinese cuisine, the spices are often cooked partly before added.
  • Italy – cannolli and other pastries. There are also recipes floating about with cinnamon lightly added to a tomato sauce to make it more “Greek.”
  • The Netherlands – stroopwafel. Oh, now Isee why they needed to “conquer” Ceylon.
  • Turkey – the Turkish flavored both meat and pilaf (pilau) with cinnamon as well as adding it to sweets like Turkish delight and hot milk.
  • Africa – Africans added cinnamon and raisins (sultanas) frequently to dishes from sweet potatoes to lamb.
  • BBQ/USA — cinnamon is one variant of a rub for pork ribs as well as an excellent component for chilis.

1/8 of a Teaspoon
I remember some of the earliest recipes my mom let me try involved pumpkin and apple pies. Her cookbook, which I still use, calls for a nine-inch pie to contain ¾ teaspoon of cinnamon, along with ¼ teaspoon ginger and 1/8 teaspoon cloves. Could you even taste that level of spice? I learned that you had to triple all the spice estimates or you wouldn’t taste anything (except for cloves – ¼ teaspoon cloves is plenty for anything unless you want the flavor completely metallic).

I don’t know why those ancient Americans of the 1960s were so afraid of spices when their European ancestors traveled thousands of miles to obtain them and, at the dawn of civilizations in Egypt, China, and the middle East, they considered cinnamon to be nearly as precious as gold. Cinnamon have recently been proven to lower insulin levels; cinnamon tablets are now a boon to diabetics. The Indians, Chinese, and Egyptian medical practitioners knew many things that we have had to relearn.

Our household has experimented with moles, tandoori, stir fries, and chili, but I am most at home throwing cinnamon into baked things. Cinnamon, brown sugar, flour, and butter creamed together can be spread on practically anything you put in the oven – apple or pumpkin pie, crumble, bread pudding, or rolls. “Plain” baked fruit will be plain no more. It’s lovely in pancakes and on oatmeal.

As a five year old, the first thing I learned to “cook” was the simplest and still the best. Take bread; mushy, gushy, fresh bread is the best. Toast it until light brown. Spread some butter (go easy on the butter! Or use a low-calorie substitute, it won’t matter) and sprinkle just a little sugar or sugar substitute on it. Then, sprinkle on loads of cinnamon. As desserts go, two pieces of cinnamon toast have fewer calories than a Snickers. And on a cold night or when you have a cold, there is nothing like some tea and toasties. Courtesy of Sri Lanka, Vasco de Gama, and the Phoenicians.

20170809 cinnamon toast

Today’s post was entirely inspired by the Daily Post Word of the day: Spicy

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