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  • Anna Sulan Masing

CINNAMON: the making of myths and legends

Cinnamon is a spice of stories. I asked Twitter what people’s favourite food or drinks with cinnamon were and the response I got was vast. So many of the responses were about memories and joy, they were about family and the process of cooking. The trade route of cinnamon could be traced across time through these answers. You could see how cinnamon travelled, changed and adapted as it did; cinnamon is embedded in and embodies many cultures and people. It is with this in mind, as we write in our syllabus for this season, that I am interested in this spice.

Cinnamon tells a story of cold winter days in the UK with mulled wine, of sumptuous Danish baked goods, family gatherings in America for Thanksgiving with pumpkin pies and in India over Biryani with its Mughal Empire roots, the aromatic ‘Chinese five-spice’ and Sri Lankan curries such as ambul thiyal a southern sour fish curry with black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, pandan and curry leaves, and dried goraka.

But, as we think on these dishes that we broadly explain as having cinnamon in them we must look a little closer at the spice. One cinnamon story is of its fraternal twin sister cassia. Cinnamon (cinnamomum verum) also known as ‘true cinnamon’ or Ceylon cinnamon, named for the colonial name of Sri Lanka from which it is native; cassia (cinnamomum aromaticum) is also known as Chinese cinnamon, or in the US is simply sold as cinnamon.

These spices come from the same family – the laurel tree – and have similar flavour properties. Both spices are harvested in rainy season, as it is easier to strip the bark from the tree. The bark is then dried under the sun, when it naturally curls into quills – cinnamon curls tighter and smaller. But, their histories are different. Because of the heady desire for cinnamon over the years / decades / centuries / millennia, stories have been conjured up and mysteries have been encouraged to heighten value and obscure the truth of the spice’s origins. Because of this, we are still unsure where the story of cinnamon starts, or whether it is cassia weaving culinary tales in ancient narratives. Therefore, it is the idea of cinnamon that is the story of this spice – how the aromatic bark of the laurel family has seduced the world.

But before we conflate two different spices to tell a story, let’s look at the differences. Cinnamon is a lighter coloured bark, and the flavour is more delicate. Cook and restaurateur Asma Khan says in her cookbook Asma’s Indian Kitchen “for me, the delicate edge of cinnamon makes it perfect for sweet dishes, whilst cassia bark has a more robust flavour that takes heat far better than cinnamon” she then suggests using cassia with all the meat and rice dishes and cinnamon for desserts.

Jill Norman’s The Complete Book of Spices explains cassia as being “ticker and corser and its taste is less delicate” than cinnamon; Norman also notes that cassia’s history dates back to Chinese herbal medicine in 2700 BC, is in the bible “as one of the spices with which Moses was commanded to anoint the tabernacle (Exodus 30)”. She states it is native to Assam and northern Burma, but he Grammar of Spice by Caz Hildebrand says that cassia is originally from a laurel tree native to Southern China and then was cultivated across south and east Asia.

Cinnamon has appeared in antiquity texts in Egypt, and the Bible, but there is an argument to say that it was cassia making an appearance due to the spice trade routes. Norman points to the fact that cinnamon was not recorded in Sri Lanka until the 13th Century, which could be seen as proof that ancient mentions of cinnamon where indeed cassia, but the exact details are too complex to confirm.

Cinnamon and/or cassia is an ancient spice, but we can’t talk about a spice without understanding lines of power and politics that go hand and hand with the food trade, and desire for spice has spurred the bloodiest battles in history. The fight between the Dutch and the English East India Companies for the nutmeg producing Banda Islands in Indonesia resulted in 90% of the native population being killed – by starvation, disease and massacre. Food historian Filipe Fernandez-Armesto explains that the “history of spice trade relates fundamentally to the shift in wealth and power from East to West.” As wars over monopoly were fought, the perceived luxury of spice gave the goods disproportional importance within the marketplace.

Even in antiquity, stories were told to create mystery and obscuration around cinnamon’s origin so as to hold monopolies on the trade of cinnamon - traders did not want anyone else to find out where cinnamon was from, so the more outrageous or dangerous, or vague, the world from where cinnamon was from the less likely others would go seek it. One story, told by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, described enormous birds carrying cinnamon sticks up to their mountain top nests. Locals would cut huge cuts of donkey meats and leave out for the birds, who would take them to her nests; the weight of the meat would mean the nest would fall and the cinnamon sticks could be collected! Egyptians used cinnamon for embalming, but also as a perfume. The scent of burning cinnamon is mentioned throughout antiquity, Nero burnt the spice at his 2nd wife, Poppaea Sabina’s funeral, encasing a city in a rich fragrance. Cinnamon has always been encompassing and intoxicating.

The earliest documentation of cinnamon and cassia trade was to Mesopotamia from the ancient Arabic kingdom of Dilmun in the modern-day Persian Gulf. It was through the Arabic and African spice routes that cinnamon first traversed traversed the trade routes of antiquity and then later through to Western Europe, with Arabic traders serving as procurers of the fabled spice.

The global spice trade was the beginning of globalisation, it was a desire to seek out riches from afar and “such desires, unchecked, once led to colonialism” explains Ligaya Mishan in a recent New York Times piece about spice and empires. The exoticism of cinnamon and pepper, which became more widely known in the Middle Ages as a result of spice trade into Western Europe and fuelled Western European kingdoms to seek them out.

In 1505 cinnamon was ‘discovered’ in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, who ended the mythical stories of origin by proclaiming their newfound knowledge– an act of ownership no doubt. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in 1636, with a monopoly of the spice until the English East Indian Company fought for domination of the land in 1796. Through the East Indian Companies of the Dutch and the English, violence flowed across many Asian countries. Violence inflicted in the name of empire and trade. Many monopolies over spice got broken by seeds and plants being snuck out of a country, but that’s a whole other story.

Chef and founder of spice company Sizl, Malika Basu explained how spices continue to be important, “as every good Indian will tell you, spices form the bedrock of our food culture. To me, spices are the absolute central point of a dish” she said. “In today’s global world, they also offer a glimpse and an experience into a new culture. I love going to spice markets and shops when I travel and buy different spices. The journey of a quality spice starts in the fields – the soil, the climate and the crop.”

There is a lot to investigate with cinnamon, both as an ingredient but also as a way into understanding trade routes across time and space. We are particularly interested in decolonising our sourcing and understanding of culinary systems so we will have particular slants into these topics but we hope that this piece, as with others, will inspire further investigation. Cinnamon shows how complication and messiness is part of understanding food, it shows how power and desire is part of food, and it shows how identity and belonging is part of food.

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Aug 30, 2021

I'm extremely curious if it is only "in the US is simply sold as cinnamon" (Cinnamomum aromaticum)? It the differentiation clear in the UK or the EU? Most of the article seems to be about how it is not clear throughout history.

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