Sweet with an undertone of spicy
Like aromatic rolled wooden cigars
Candles, Christmas, soaps, and potpourri
Cakes, coffees, treats, or chocolate bark
Wear it, eat it, or make everything nice
With this spice?!
Of all the spices available across the globe today, cinnamon is one of the two spices (the other being pepper), that I personally think is generously available and popularly used in various cuisines. In today's culinary world, when we think of cinnamon, a few names that pop up immediately in our mind are cinnamon buns, coffee, latte, or even cinnamon toast crunch! From breakfast to beverages, drinks to desserts, this spice has become an instant favorite in kitchens, bars, and bakeries around the world.
Apart from the food industry, the cinnamon fragrance is undoubtedly available in various body scrubs, soaps, lotions, hair products, and makeup. And not to forget that cinnamon is the official flag bearer of the holiday season. No holiday meal is complete unless we have a cinnamon candle burning in the back, while grandma bakes our favorite dessert accented with cinnamon.
What took me by surprise was to learn that the 'cinnamon' that I have used to flavor curries and sauces all this while was in fact NOT cinnamon! The outer bark of Cinnamomum Cassia, with a thicker and uneven appearance, just like the bark of any tree, is cassia. It is an evergreen tree that is known to have originated in southern China. Ancient trade relations between the two countries brought this aromatic spice with a perfect balance of warmth and spiciness to India. Dal-chini is Hindi for cinnamon, which can be translated to 'Wood (of) China'. Pleasantly surprised?! Me too!
This spice imported from China became quite popular in Indian cuisine. Soul warming Indian food begs for the pungency of this spice. So much so that cassia is one of the major ‘shareholders’ of the heart and soul of Indian food- 'garam masala'. Lavish red meat curries from Arab lands, Portuguese meat stews, British Kormas, and French pies are incomplete without this spice. Every foreign power that has tried to rule India, left with an influence of cinnamon on their own cuisine. In no time, cinnamon became a pantry staple across the globe. The only difference was its application!
The eastern side of the world has always used cassia/ cinnamon in savory and spicy preparations; while the west famously uses cinnamon for baking purposes- cakes, cookies, pies, bread, etc. This difference in the use of cinnamon whispers a little secret in my ears. The cinnamon used for savory preparations is NOT the same as cinnamon used for dessert preparations. While cassia has a dark brown woody texture, the real cinnamon from Sri Lanka is moderately different in its appearance, flavor profile, chemical composition, and price. This original cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, India and Myanmar. However, today the production is limited only to Sri Lanka. Despite all the trades and world travel, Cinnamomum Verum has not left the native island and has not been successfully transplanted elsewhere. No one knows exactly why, especially in a world where South American chilies are majorly exported out of India, Indonesian Nutmeg proudly shines on the flag of Granada and Vietnam is the number one exporter of Black Pepper which was once found only in India.
When I tried Saigon Cinnamon for the first time:
Here's my experience discovering the real Sri Lankan Ceylon Cinnamon. While walking down the spice lanes in Thekaddy, Kerala, we came across this wholesale spice dealer with excellent customer skills- Faizal. Faizal let us examine different varieties of pepper, cardamom, and mace showed us the grading equipment which separates the spices by its size and pounded some fresh spices right there for us to appreciate their beautiful aroma. He then pulled out this jar of tan-colored, curled thin layers of what looked like cinnamon to us. He snapped a little thin layer off and asked us to try it. It smelled like cinnamon but looked nothing like what I was used to. The first five seconds right after we put a piece on our tongue, gave out a refreshing sweetness and finished off with a pungent kick. That was the REAL DEAL CINNAMON. The presence of tannins made it more pungent than cassia, however, the overall flavor profile was a lot milder and sweeter.
The traditional art of harvesting:
This Cinnamomum Verum plant that grows exclusively in Sri Lanka is harvested twice a year, around monsoon times. The branches of this tree are harvested around the age of 18 months by skilled craftsmen using their hyper sharp knife-like tools. Paper-thin peels of this young supple bark are then skillfully layered and left to dry. As it dries, the layers curl inwards giving cinnamon its signature curled-in look.
Besides culinary uses, cinnamon also boasts antifungal and antibacterial properties which makes it beneficial for treating bacterial infections. Diabetics are also known to benefit from this spice. Rich in antioxidants, this is a perfect addition to your morning smoothies or just a pinch in lemon-honey tea on a sick day. In fact, a grandma's special recipe involves boiling a piece of ginger, cinnamon, and a squeeze of lemon for 3 to 5 minutes as a cure for sore throat, cough, or nasal congestion. In Ayurvedic medicine, cinnamon is used to lower Kapha and Vata, by regulating the digestive fire. Fall and winter is the time when, according to Ayurveda, digestive imbalances for Kapha and Vata types surge. And therefore, the cinnamon season is traditionally Fall till Easter. No wonder it is present in every holiday recipe! Some people prefer taking cinnamon tablets to give themselves a little digestive boost. Others love sprinkling a little cinnamon powder on cooked vegetables, soups, or salads.
Unfortunately, even in the western countries where cinnamon is mainly used in baked goods, it is Cassia that gets exported. Cassia being cheaper, is big on imports in countries like the US and Canada. In some cases, it is the inner bark of cassia that is curled up to look like cinnamon, albeit it lacks flavor. It could also be the thick bark of cassia that is processed to look like cinnamon by smoothening off the rough woody look, making it lighter in color. In this process, though cassia resembles cinnamon, a lot of flavor gets stripped off, leaving behind a pretty looking but not-so-flavourful 'cinnamon'. The real cinnamon is also available, but mostly at boutique spice stores, and you will definitely notice how expensive it is as compared to the ‘regular’ kind from the generic grocery stores.
Which one of these is better?
Very hard to say since cassia and cinnamon both have their distinct flavor profiles. A chemical compound named coumarin is present in both cinnamon and cassia since they hail from the same genus. However, in cassia, the proportion is quite higher than in cinnamon. Coumarin is a blood thinner and can affect the kidneys when consumed in higher amounts. Having said that, an inch of cassia bark used in curries is not going to be anywhere closer to the daily threshold (if any). My personal opinion is to use cassia for spicy, meat or stew-like preparations while cinnamon in cupcakes, muffins, french toast, and other sweet treats. In a country like Sri Lanka, it's obvious that real cinnamon is used from breakfast, meat roasts, curries, stews to desserts.
While Sri Lanka is the only exporter of cinnamon, cassia comes from Indonesia, Vietnam, and some parts of Kerala, India. And because of the exclusivity of the real cinnamon, it makes a hot commodity in the spice market. Everyone wants a piece of it and is ready to spend the $$$ for the best! Next time you visit any spice plantation, be sure to check what you are buying- cinnamon or cassia. However, in the world spice trade, cassia can be legally called cinnamon for two reasons- 1) very little difference between their tastes and 2) make trade easy and economical. Have both kinds in your kitchen, experiment, and decide for yourself what's your favorite!