#Did you know?
Cinnamon is a very remarkable spice/herb for its beneficial effects and versatility purposes. It is one of the favourite household spices. Once traded as currency, this spice has a pleasant flavour and warm smell that has made it popular in cooking, particularly in baking and curries.
Cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Malabar Coast of India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. The leading producers today are Indonesia, China, Việt Nam, and Sri Lanka.
The spice comes from the inner bark of a small evergreen tree. The bark is peeled and laid in the sun to dry, where it curls up into rolls known as cinnamon sticks. Cinnamon is also available in a powdered form.
Cinnamon thrives in tropical regions, where the main variety is Ceylon cinnamon from the Cinnamomum Zeylanicum plant, which comes from Sri Lanka. The other main type is Cassia cinnamon, which has a stronger taste and is slightly cheaper.
This ingredient has quite a long and vibrant history. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used the Sri Lankan spice for cooking, as a meat preservative, and in perfumes.
It’s referred to several times in the Bible, including the Song of Solomon, where it’s called one of the “choice spices.” And in the Book of Exodus, The Lord gave Moses a recipe for holy anointing oil, with “sweet-smelling cinnamon” as the second ingredient listed – clearly, a favourite of the Divine!
In the early days of the spice trade, cinnamon was popular in the kitchen, but the biggest demand made on cinnamon was for their purported medicinal applications. And until the late stages of the Middle Ages, traders kept the Sri Lankan source a closely guarded secret.
This meant it commanded of cinnamon a princely sum and was affordable only for a few – the wealthy, the nobility, physicians, and priests and others who acquired it for use in religious ceremonies.
By the 1500s, explorers searching for new trade routes to Asia discovered similar cinnamon varieties in the Philippines, and by the mid-1600s, the Dutch East India Company had established several Asian trade posts for transfer of wild-grown spices.
Commercial cultivation soon followed, and with greater supply, prices began to adjust.
To maximise the medicinal value and health benefits of cinnamon, regardless of type, the key thing is its freshness. Some prefer the sweet, subtle flavour of Ceylon cinnamon in desserts and the stronger potency of Cassia in savoury dishes, but most commercial cinnamon is a mixture of the two.
For nutritional purposes, cinnamon is pungent and warming, and contains large amounts of polyphenol antioxidants and therefore good for all sorts of “cold” conditions, from common cold and stomach chills to arthritis and rheumatism. Latest research suggested that it’s good for oral health, helping prevent tooth decay and bad breath.
In the West, the inner bark is used mainly for digestive upsets: indigestion, general sluggishness, colic, and diarrhoea. In China, rou gui is considered very warming and tonifying for the kidneys, a good energizing herb for conditions that can be linked to weak kidney: asthma and menopausal syndrome, for example. Distilled from the bark (essential oil), the oil is used in many parts of the world for a wide range of chronic infections.
The cinnamon twigs (gui zhi) can be used as a circulatory stimulant to warm cold hands and feet. It also promotes sweating and is ideal for “cold” conditions.
Speaking about Vietnamese cooking, the Vietnamese cinnamon plays a significant role in pho recipes. Organic Vietnamese cinnamon comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum loureiroi cassia tree that is native to the higher, mountainous regions of Northern and Central Việt Nam, mostly in the mountain districts of Trà Bồng and Tây Trà of Quảng Ngãi Province. In Việt Nam, it is called quế trà my, quế thanh, or quế trà bồng.
Most Vietnamese cassia is cultivated from seedlings and grown on small farms. The best quality cinnamon bark comes from trees 15-25 years old. The harvest time for cinnamon trees is very long, from 5 to 40 years. Five-year-old cinnamon trees can yield about 10 kg of cinnamon each season.
During the harvest, farmers remove the bark from cassia trees in approximately 40 pieces. The lowest barks from the base of the tree are the thickest and highest concentration of oil is found.
The general rule of thumb in regards to flavour is the higher up the tree, the less flavourful and thinner the bark. The barks are dried in the sub for several days, which causes the bark to curl into quills which are then separated by bark thickness, colour and intact pieces. They are then packed for export.
The Vietnamese variety has the highest concentration of essential oils of any cinnamon currently found in the world today. The high concentration of aromatic oils (typically 4-6%) gives Vietnamese cinnamon it’s signature robust and concentrated sweet and robustly spicy flavour, similarly to “red hot” candy.
This intensity doesn’t work in all dishes, but when you want a rich, dark, vibrant flavour like in phở (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) and chả quế (local pork sausage, traditionally cooked on a spit over a wood fire in a large section of the bamboo stem), there is no match.
What gives phở its distinctive taste is actually its spices, which commonly include cinnamon bark, star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and cloves. The spice combination released an intoxicating aroma.