While doing some baking recently, I pulled down three different jars of cinnamon from my spice cupboard. One was from Saigon. Its label told me it was the “world’s best cinnamon.” The other was also from Saigon (no telling why I had two of these) and the last one was from McCormick.
But, I thought, isn’t the “best” cinnamon from Sri Lanka? I seem to remember stories of traders sailing to distant, exotic lands to load up on the spice, a valuable commodity.
There’s a simple answer here, according to sources I checked. That is that yes, Sri Lanka produces the best true cinnamon in the world, and it is the land where this variety of cinnamon originated.
So, what about those bottles of Saigon cinnamon? This powdered spice turns out to be cassia, not cinnamon. The two spices are closely related, originating from the bark of two different types of laurel trees. Experts differ on how many types of cinnamon and cassia are in the family, but estimates range from between 50-to-250 different types.
Cassia, for a very long time, has shadowed cinnamon around the globe as a sort of doppelganger, or spice substitute for the “real” thing. This is according to “The Spice Bible,” by Ian Hemphill (Robert Rose, $22.95). The two spices probably shared space in the cargo holds of those trading ships long ago.
Cassia, which has a darker color and more penetrating taste, with a little bitterness, is thought to have originated in Assam, a region in India that borders on China. According to “The Spice Bible,” there are references to cassia found in China going all the way back to 4000 BC.
Cinnamon is distinguished by being the first spice to be mentioned in the Old Testament. It is also said to stretch back to the time of the pharaohs in Egypt, where it was used in the embalming process.
While cassia and cinnamon are sold side by side in the United States and most other countries, it is illegal to sell cassia as cinnamon in England and Australia. In France, however, there is only one word for “cinnamon” and it refers to both cinnamon and cassia — canelle.
That word made me think of the similar word in Spanish, canela. This is true cinnamon, a pale tan in color and rolled up into many concentric layers of papery-textured spice (see photo above). Mexican cooks love canela, using it for their treats, sauces and hot chocolate. Mexico is, according to Wikipedia, the world’s main importer of true cinnamon.
Cassia has darker, harder bark, usually flat on the bottom and curled up into two facing, single curls on top. Cassia is what you find in a hobby store around Christmas time, the long, fragrant sticks tied up with ribbons for decorating. While some swear by canela, true cinnamon, many bakers in the U.S. buy cassia for its more aromatic properties.
Two more things: Just for fun, go to the Dean & Deluca’s website, deandeluca.com, and look up “canella.” This is yet another spice, sometimes called “white cinnamon.” This one is from a tree grown in the Caribbean regions and unrelated to cinnamon.
Or, Google the Web for a rather strange contest that’s been going around for some time – the Cinnamon Challenge. Apparently very few people can ingest a heaping tablespoonful of ground cinnamon without upchucking. It also looked like YouTube had some video examples, too. I decided not to watch.
Sources: “The Spice Bible”, Wikipedia
(Photos: Jozsef Szoke and Davide Farabegoli)