Secret Ingredient: Cinnamon
I keep plenty of cinnamon in my pantry; I find its uses endless, from baking, to drinks, to savory meat dishes. Since my favorite foods hail from North African and Indian cuisine, I would be lost without this spice. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the cinnamon people use in some of those countries might not be the same “cinnamon” found in the typical United States grocery store. Some investigation was in order.
A little background: Cinnamon has been a prized spice for centuries. It was highly valued in the ancient spice trade and the traders developed elaborate tales about its true origin to protect their profits. Despite these myths, we know cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The bark curls into quills as it dries, which can be cut and sold as pieces or ground into powder.
There are two varieties: Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, and cassia or Chinese cinnamon (what we generally see in the U.S.). In fact, in England and Australia it is illegal to sell cassia as “cinnamon”. The warm, sweet fragrances and flavors of both are similar; but Ceylon cinnamon has a lighter hue and a more delicate flavor with hints of citrus. It is grown in Sri Lanka (once known as Ceylon) and South America, while cassia is grown in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Central America. Cassia has a deeper, reddish hue, a more pungent, sweet, flavor, and the texture is a bit smoother when it is ground. One extremely potent type of cassia is Vietnamese or Saigon Cinnamon.
Saigon cinnamon: If you are not cooking it in a specific dish, sauce, drink, or baked good, you can simply sprinkle a little bit over yogurt, cereal or toast. For this purpose, I recommend looking for Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon in the store; its not much more expensive and I find the texture and flavor more appealing in its raw form. Spice Islands is one large manufacturer that produces Saigon cinnamon.
Cassia cinnamon: This is a great choice for savory dishes that may have other strong spices and flavors to complement and balance out the cinnamon. It is also great in baked goods when you want that punch of cinnamon, and is even a great addition to potpourri and holiday decorating. On the other hand, Ceylon cinnamon is good choice for recipes that don't have a lot of competing flavors that could overpower the spice. Think along the lines of dessert: custards, ice cream, baked fruits, syrups, and spiced tea or cocoa.
If a recipe calls for cinnamon, it will be fine to use whatever variety you may have on hand.
All this cinnamon talk has me craving some Indian curry, and I just remembered I have butternut squash in the pantry. I know what I’m having for dinner! For an easy and delicious meal that highlights the warmth and sweetness of cinnamon, check out our Moroccan Chicken Thighs recipe.