Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. It is native to the island Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), south-west India and the Tenasserim Hills of Burma. Related cinnamon species are found in Indonesia, Vietnam and China. There are many different species; the two main varieties are Cinnamomum cassia (the Chinese variety) and Cinnamomum zeylanicum or Ceylon Cinnamon. Compared to the Chinese species, Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in color and has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than cassia.
Both the bark and leaves of the cinnamon tree are aromatic. The outer bark and the inner lining are scraped off and the remaining bark is left to dry completely, when it curls and rolls into cinnamon sticks. It is graded according to thickness, aroma, and appearance. Cinnamon sticks keep their flavor for a long time. Cinnamon is available both in strips of rolled bark and in powdered form. Like any powdered spice, cinnamon powder loses its flavor in a short period of time and it is best to purchase in smaller quantities. Sore in air tight containers and away from light.
Since Ceylon cinnamon is native in South Asia, the cuisines of Sri Lanka and India make heavy use of it. Cinnamon is also popular in West, South West and Central Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa. It is equally suited for the fiery beef curries of Sri Lanka and the subtle, fragrant rice dishes of North India. In India, cinnamon sticks are often used as whole; they may be removed before serving, but are more frequently kept as a fragrant decoration. Powdered cinnamon is an ingredient in several spice mixtures, like North Indian garam masala, Arabic baharat, Moroccan ras el hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ehiopian berbere. The largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon is Mexico, where it is used in coffee and chocolate. Cinnamon also is used in Mexican mole sauces. In Western cooking cinnamon is mainly used in several kinds of desserts and stewed fruits. Cinnamon bark is an optional ingredient for the classical French mixture quatre épices.
Like most spices, cinnamon is also valued for its medicinal properties. Scientific studies show that one-half teaspoon of cinnamon each day may reduce blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in diabetes patients who are not taking insulin. In ancient Indian herbal medicine ayurveda, cinnamon is used to balance digestion and in the treatment of stomach disorders. Cinnamon oil is used for headaches and joint pain.
Cinnamon is an ancient spice mentioned several times in the Old Testament. In the ancient world cinnamon was precious. In Egypt cinnamon was used for both medicinal purposes as well as for flavoring. It was also used in embalming. In the first century AD, Emperor Nero of Rome burned a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre, signifying the depth of his loss. In medieval Europe it was a staple ingredient, along with ginger, in many recipes. The demand for cinnamon in the West drew both the Portuguese and the Dutch to the shores of Ceylon. Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in the 16th century. The Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 and established a system of cultivation that exists to this day.