Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum. It is used in both sweet and savoury foods. The taste and fragrance of cinnamon are derived from its essential oil, which in turn has 18 to 25% cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon is the name for perhaps a dozen species of trees and the commercial spice products that some of them produce. All are members of the genus Cinnamomum in the family Lauraceae; only a few are grown commercially for spices.
In China, true cinnamon (C. verum) is more common than cassia (C. aromaticum). Cassia has similar properties to cinnamon, but is harsher, due to containing more tannins.* Cassia has similar properties to cinnamon, but is harsher, due to containing more tannins.*
The source of true cinnamon is considered by some to be a mystery that was only recently solved; it had long been cultivated in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), then nearby India (from where it was called karuāmaṇi or “black wood”), then further away in Madagascar, where it was called vahīna (from which comes our word “vanilla”). There is also a
Cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the world. The cinnamon you buy in the supermarket is actually made from a related plant, cassia, which is easier to grow. But true cinnamon comes from a tree native to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), and finding it was a long and difficult process.
The first Europeans to reach India found that the local people used it as a spice, but did not know where it came from. It wasn’t until a century later that another European, on his third voyage of exploration, discovered a Cinnamon Kingdom right there in India. But then he died before he could get back to Europe with more than one small branch of cinnamon.
Thousands of people had been searching for the source of cinnamon for over two hundred years without success; an entire industry had arisen based on getting some from somewhere else. It was not until after Columbus that anyone tried looking in Ceylon again.
Something similar happened with cloves. In ancient times cloves were worth their weight in silver; the Romans used them as part of their funeral rites, and those who could afford it put them on their dinner table every night. But no European knew where they came from either. The search went on for hundreds of years before explorers found them growing on trees around
Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several cinnamon trees from the genus Cinnamomum that is used in both sweet and savory foods. The term also refers to the aromatic bark of the cinnamon tree, which is used as an ingredient in cooking and perfume manufacture.
Their taste and aroma are characterized by a slight, warm sweetness and a faint but lasting pungency, which is free of the harshness that true cinnamon possesses. For this reason, cassia is sometimes described as cassia-bark or Ceylon cinnamon (to distinguish it from other varieties). They are best obtained by scraping or cutting the bark from fresh branches and twigs.
The term “cassia” may also refer to its derived leaves, dried without any further processing. In this sense, it is known as Indonesian or Saigon cinnamon. The two types of cinnamon have similar physical properties and appearance but differ in their flavor and aroma; they originate from different species of plant. Cassia has a higher oil content than Ceylon cinnamon.
Cinnamon was also used in embalming. In fact, the Egyptians used it so much that they drove the price way up, and the Greeks and Romans had to resort to making cinnamon fakes, made out of oak bark.
Cinnamon, like many spices, is the dried bark of a tree. The buds grow in the spring and are harvested that fall. There are two varieties: Ceylon (the true cinnamon) and cassia. Cassia is cheaper; it’s easier to harvest and has a higher oil content, so it’s generally used in industrially processed foods. The oil in Ceylon is more delicate, so it tastes better.
Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, and southern China. It was imported into ancient Greece and Rome, but those civilizations didn’t realize what it was—they thought it grew on trees like laurel leaves do. They called it “true cinnamon,” or “cassia” for short.*
Cinnamomum zeylanicum, commonly known as Ceylon cinnamon or true cinnamon, is a species of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Malaysia. Its flavor and aroma differs considerably from the “cassia” cinnamon more common in supermarkets today. The two types of cinnamon have similar physical characteristics: they are both hard woods which can be polished to a fine luster, and they have very similar chemical compositions. Cassia has a higher content of coumarin, a naturally occurring chemical with a sweet odor that also gives the related tonka bean its sweet smell. However, coumarin is toxic in large quantities; consumption of large amounts of cassia may be fatal.
The two types of cinnamon also differ in their taste, and it is partly from the presence of coumarin that cassia tastes hotter than Ceylon cinnamon. In addition, Ceylon cinnamon contains about one percent safrole by dry weight, a compound found in small quantities in other spices such as clove and black pepper which is mildly carcinogenic in laboratory rats.
Ceylon cinnamon has been found to be richer in antioxidants than cassia; its oil contains eugenol and other compounds that give it additional antimicrobial properties as well as adding to its distinctive
Once upon a time, cinnamon was worth more than its weight in silver. In fact, for centuries it was the most valuable trade item in the world. That’s hard for us to imagine, but it’s true.
Between about A.D. 350 and 1850, when the Europeans got serious about taking over Indonesia and so had to deal with the native powers there, the spice trade was one of the most important things in human history.
Spices were luxury goods in ancient times; the Romans put them on par with perfume, which is why we still call them spices (from the Latin word for “perfume”). But that changed as soon as Muslim traders brought them westward to Europe. The Europeans suddenly had a taste for cinnamon, and they also had large amounts of silver coinage just sitting around waiting to be spent.
And that created a whole new world of human confusion.