Cinnamon lends aromatic zing
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
The Old Testament
THE HINDI word dalchini means "wood from China," but that word more accurately describes cassia rather than cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of southwest India and the Tenasserim Hills of Burma.
The meat dishes of Sri Lanka, the garam masalas, curry powders, pulaos, biryanis and teas of India and Persian and Arab-influenced cuisines all over Asia and Africa use cinnamon bark for its warm and aromatic zing. In European cuisine, cinnamon's main role is as flavouring for stewed fruit and other desserts, cakes, baked foods, puddings and chocolate. Mexicans add cinnamon to coffee and hot chocolate.
The embalmers of ancient Egypt used powdered cinnamon to stuff the eviscerated body cavities of mummies, probably because cinnamic acid, a constituent of cinnamon, has antibacterial properties that retard putrefaction.
Cinnamon was as valuable as gold in ancient Egypt and Rome. The Romans used it as a perfume, fragrance and as a wine-flavouring agent. When the Roman emperor, Nero the one who played the fiddle while Rome burned, wanted to show the world how much his dead wife meant to him, he had her cremated on a funeral pyre made out of a year's supply of cinnamon.
Cinnamon's value as spice spurred on European voyages in search of a shorter sea route to India. After the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in the mid 16th century, the vanquished Sinhalese king had to pay the conquerors an annual tribute of 110,000 kg of cinnamon bark.
Up to ten percent of cinnamon bark is volatile oil, mucilage, tannin and sugar. Cinnamaldehyd and eugenol are the major constituents of the volatile oil. Pure eugenol is a substitute for clove oil.
The Egyptians were among the first to use cinnamon as a medicine. They used it to treat gastrointestinal ailments like flatulence, nausea and diarrhoea, but cinnamon's value as a gut cure is marginal. Despite popular belief that its anti-bacterial properties help prevents spoilage of meat dishes, cinnamon's credentials as a preservative are dubious at best.
Its flavour is probably the only worthwhile thing about cinnamon. Like other powdered spices, powdered cinnamon loses its flavour and aroma quickly. To preserve the freshness and zing, grind up the bark just before using it in cooking, or store small quantities of the powdered bark in dark, airtight containers.
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