Don’t buy Cassia when you want Cinnamon
Every visitor to my house first looks around in astonishment at the number of books that I have, and when they have gotten over the initial shock, they notice my prize possession. It hangs on a wall inside a frame and nobody who has ever tried to guess what it is, gets it right. It is a piece of cassia bark. “Cinnamon,” they all aver. I have to correct them. “No, it is not cinnamon: it is cassia!”
Ask the average Joe at a supermarket to identify the spice varieties that originates from tree bark, and quick as a flash, he will reply “cinnamon”. The truth is that there are two related species of trees. One is cassia; the other is cinnamon. The bark of both species is used as the spice. Most people – including the fine gentlemen of Spices Board of India – are not clear on the difference between cassia and cinnamon. Not surprisingly, the rest of us, who have cinnamon and/or cassia bark or powder on our kitchen shelves, use the two words interchangeably. However, there is a vast difference and, like most other stories that concern the world of spices, this one too is fascinating.
Cinnamon – let’s call it true cinnamon for now – grows only in one part of the entire world, and that is in Sri Lanka. The bark is thin, highly aromatic and is lighter on the palate than cassia is. Cassia is also a bark and like true cinnamon, comes from a related species of tree – a laurel. Cassia bark is thicker in appearance and is heavier on the palate. Cassia grows in Kerala, Myanmar, Vietnam and China. The production of cassia outnumbers true cinnamon by 3:1.
I acquired my 16 inch x 5 inch roll in the dried seafood market of Des Voeux Road of Hong Kong. Food, according to ancient Chinese wisdom, is medicine, so just as dried seafood is heating to the system, cassia too has a very specific use in medicine. I bought it from a chemist, though one that sold allopathic and Chinese medicine. But a few years later, when I visited the cinnamon plantations of Sri Lanka, just inland from Bentota and its famous beach, my cassia bark looked seriously height-challenged. For, I had stumbled upon this extremely fascinating part of the world during cinnamon harvest time, and every house in the area was full of specialized experts who deftly shaved off the thin, curling bark and rolled them into curls of 36 inches at the speed of lightning.
It is only in Sri Lanka’s cinnamon-growing district that spice planters only own the land that the all-important spice grows on and a completely different tribe: the Salagamas, prepare cinnamon for the international market. I got to taste plenty of cinnamon during my week-long stay on the island, because few dishes do <I>not<I> have a touch of the spice. But in the Bentota region, I also got to taste it second-hand! It is only the bark of the tree that becomes cinnamon. The trunk and the branches would have been discarded, but the owners of the plantations gather them and use them as firewood. It is a double whammy: firewood is free and the food acquires the aroma of cinnamon!
Of course, I just had to buy a dozen lengths of cinnamon for my friends, and not being in the trade, I had a challenge every step of the way, from the X-ray at the airport to the cabin baggage storage! Nobody in Sri Lanka could believe that it was cinnamon that I was carrying and I was treated as a security threat. A few years later, I remember those days with a chuckle. What lives on is the ‘lively’ flavour of cinnamon that goes into my coffee every morning.