What is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. A native of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) the best cinnamon grows along the coastal strip near Colombo. In ancient Egypt cinnamon was used medicinally and as a flavouring for beverages, It was also used in embalming, where body cavities were filled with spiced preservatives. In the ancient world cinnamon was more precious than gold. This is not too surprising though, as in Egypt the abundance of gold made it a fairly common ornamental metal. Nero, emperor of Rome in the first century AD, burned a years supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre — an extravagant gesture meant to signify the depth of his loss.
Cinnamon was known in medieval Europe, where it was a staple ingredient, along with ginger, in many recipes. Since most meals were prepared in a single cauldron, casseroles containing both meat and fruit were common and cinnamon helped bridge the flavours. When crusaders brought home sugar, it too was added to the pot. Mince pie is a typical combination of this period which still survives. The demand for cinnamon was enough to launch a number of explorers’ enterprises. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka immediately after reaching India in 1536. The Sinhalese King paid the Portuguese tributes of 110,000 kilograms of cinnamon annually. The Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 and established a system of cultivation that exists to this day. In its wild state, trees grow high on stout trunks. Under cultivation, the shoots are continually cropped almost to ground level, resulting in a low bush, dense with thin leafy branches. From these, come the finest quills.
Real Cinnamon vs. Cassia
There are many different species, between 50 and 250, depending on which botanist you choose to believe. The two main varieties are Cinnamomum cassia and Cinnamomum zeylanicum. The first, cassia, we will consider separately in its own section. C. zeylanicum is also known as Ceylon cinnamon (the source of the its Latin name, zeylanicum), or ‘true cinnamon’ which is a lighter colour and possessing a sweeter, more delicate flavour than cassia. Cinnamon comes in ‘quills’, strips of bark rolled one in another. The pale brown to tan bar strips are generally thin, the spongy outer bark having been scraped off. The best varieties are pale and parchment-like in appearance. Cinnamon is very similar to cassia, and in North America little distinction is given, though cassia tends to dominate the market. Cinnamon is also available ground, and can be distinguished from cassia by its lighter colour and much finer powder.
Bouquet: sweet and fragrant
Flavour: warm and aromatic
Hotness Scale: 3
Cooking with Cinnamon
Cassia and cinnamon have similar uses, but since it is more delicate, cinnamon is used more in dessert dishes. It is commonly used in cakes and other baked goods, milk and rice puddings, chocolate dishes and fruit desserts, particularly apples and pears. It is common in many Middle Eastern and North African dishes, in flavouring lamb tagines or stuffed aubergines. It is used in curries and pilaus and in garam masala. It may be used to spice mulled wines, creams and syrups. The largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon is Mexico, where it is drunk with coffee and chocolate and brewed as a tea.
Preparation and Storage
Whole quills will keep their flavour indefinitely. Unfortunately it is difficult to grind so for many recipes the powdered variety will be preferred. Like other powdered spices cinnamon loses flavour quickly, so should be purchased in small quantities and kept away from light in airtight containers.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Recent studies have determined that consuming as little as one-half teaspoon of Cinnamon each day may reduce blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels by as much as 20% in Type II diabetes patients who are not taking insulin it is mildly carminative and used to treat nausea and flatulence. It is also used alone or in combination to treat diarrhea. Chinese herbalists tell of older people, in their 70s and 80s, developing a cough accompanied by frequent spitting of whitish phlegm. A helpful remedy, they suggest, is chewing and swallowing a very small pinch of powdered cinnamon. This remedy can also help people with cold feet and hands, especially at night. Germany’s Commission E approves Cinnamon for appetite loss and indigestion. The primary chemical constituents of this herb include cinnamaldehyde, gum, tannin, mannitol, coumarins, and essential oils (aldehydes, eugenol, pinene). Cinnamon is predominantly used as a carminative addition to herbal prescriptions. It is used in flatulent dyspepsia, dyspepsia with nausea, intestinal colic and digestive atony associated with cold & debilitated conditions. It relieves nausea and vomiting, and, because of its mild astringency, it is particularly useful in infantile diarrhea. The cinnamaldehyde component is hypotensive and spasmolytic, and increases peripheral blood flow. The essential oil of this herb is a potent antibacterial, anti-fungal, and uterine stimulant. The various terpenoids found in the volatile oil are believed to account for Cinnamon’s medicinal effects. Test tube studies also show that Cinnamon can augment the action of insulin. However, use of Cinnamon to improve the action of insulin in people with diabetes has yet to be proven in clinical trials.
Cultivation of Cinnamon Tree
Cinnamon is from a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family growing up to 7m (56 ft) in its wild state. It has deeply-veined ovate leaves that are dark green on top, lighter green underneath. The bark is smooth and yellowish. Both the bark and leaves are aromatic. It has small yellowish-white flowers with a disagreeable odour that bear dark purple berries. It prefers a hot, wet tropical climate at a low altitude. Cultivated plantations grow trees as small bushes, no taller than 3 m (10 ft), as the stems are continually cut back to produce new stems for bark. The outer bark, cork and the pithy inner lining are scraped off and the remaining bark is left to dry completely, when it curls and rolls into quills. Several are rolled together to produce a compact final product, which is then cut into uniform lengths and graded according to thickness, aroma and appearance.
Ceylon Cinnamon, True Cinnamon
French: cannelleGerman: Ceylonzimt, Kaneel
Chinese: yook gway
Indian: dal-chini, darchini, dhall cheene