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  • Writer's pictureRoger Tripathi

Back to the Roots Part 3: Cinnamon

Pic 1: Author- Sabine Henning

Note from the author:

This is a special time of the year for many people living in the Western Hemisphere - it is called Halloween! The tradition comes from Celtic religions with pagan roots. This ancient Celtic religion, commonly known as Celtic paganism, comprises the religious beliefs and practices adhered to by the Iron Age people of Western Europe now known as the Celts.

So, again the roots that we spring from, is the theme of this new posting, dear readers!

I warmly welcome you back to my column about specialty crops in Indonesia!

This time I want to introduce you to another very famous and well-known specialty crop, which is cinnamon. Although this spice doesn`t originate from the ancient times of the Indonesian Islands,— records say it came from the Red Sea to the trading ports in Egypt— it gained a special importance in the Middle Ages, when traders brought it to Europe. Let us delve further into this interesting plant.

Pic 2: By Simon A. Eugster - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cinnamon – Origins of the name

The name “cassia” was first recorded in late Old English from Latin, and ultimately derives from Hebrew q'tsīʿāh, a form of the verb qātsaʿ, "to strip off bark". This is indeed, how we “harvest” the bark from the trees.

Early Modern English also used the names canel and canella, similar to the current names of cinnamon in several other European languages. They derived from the Latin word cannella, a diminutive of canna, which means "tube” reflecting the way the bark curls up as it dries (see Pic 1).

How the spice was introduced to Europe

In the Middle Ages Indonesian rafts transported cinnamon directly from the Moluccas to East Africa, where local traders then carried it north to Alexandria in Egypt. Venetian traders held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe, distributing cinnamon from Alexandria. The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers, such as the Mamluk sultans and the Ottoman Empire, was one of many factors that led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmannii, also known as Indonesian cinnamon, Padang cassia, Batavia cassia or korintje)

This aromatic spice is well-known in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere as its typical flavor sweetens a lot of dishes and desserts when added as fine ground powder (see Pic 1). You may know apple cakes, pancakes, milk rice pudding and the like from your childhood as very tasty cinnamon dishes.

Also, using the rolls as a decorative piece in flower bouquets or inhouse decorations for Christmas in winter may give you some inspirations of how we integrate this crop in our daily lives. I never forget its special flavor, when baked, cooked or implemented in room odors and candles!

But how is this interesting spice grown and harvested?

Pic 3: Cinnamon tree with pieces cut out of the bark.

Cultivation & Harvest

Cinnamomum burmanii is an evergreen tree reaching about 7 m tall with an aromatic bark (see Pic 2). Growing in wet, tropical climates, it is native in Southeast Asia and Indonesia— normally found in West Sumatra and western Jambi province, with the Kerinci region being especially known as the center of production of quality, high essential-oil crops.

Pic 4: Fresh cut piece of cinnamon bark.

After 5 to 7 years the tree is mature enough for harvesting then it is cut, so that the bark can be peeled totally from the trunk. The bark is harvested in smaller pieces or tranches, that are simply dried in the intense, tropical sun. See pictures 3 and 4. As a result, the tranches roll up and create tubes that we recognize as the cinnamon sticks in our local shops.

Grinding the cinnamon rolls produces the cinnamon fine powder, which we use in the kitchen for flavoring soups, meals and desserts.

Cinnamon ingredients and national cuisines

Ground cinnamon is composed of around 11% water, 81% carbohydrates (including 53% dietary fiber), 4% protein, and 1% fat. In a 100 g reference amount, ground cinnamon is a rich source of calcium (100% of the Daily Value, DV), iron (64% DV), and vitamin K (30% DV).

Pic 5: Drink from India with Cinnamon added for flavoring.

As said, cinnamon bark is used as a spice. It is principally employed in cooking as a condiment and flavoring material used in the preparation of chocolate, especially in Mexico. Cinnamon is often used in savory dishes of chicken and lamb. In the United States, cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor cereals, bread-based dishes, such as toast, and fruits, especially apples (a cinnamon-sugar mixture is sold separately for such purposes). It is also used in Turkish cuisine for both sweet and savory dishes. Cinnamon can be used in pickling and Christmas drinks such as eggnog. Cinnamon powder has long been an important spice in enhancing the flavor of Persian cuisine, used in a variety of thick soups, drinks and sweets. It is used as a flavoring in some alcoholic beverages, such as cinnamon-flavored whiskey in the United States, and rakomelo, a cinnamon brandy popular in parts of Greece.

Closing words about cinnamon flavor, aroma and taste

The flavor of cinnamon is due to an aromatic essential oil, that makes up 0.5 to 1% of its composition. This essential oil can be prepared by roughly pounding the bark, macerating it in sea water, and then quickly distilling the whole. It is of a golden-yellow color, with the characteristic odor of cinnamon and a very hot aromatic taste. The pungent taste and scent come from cinnamaldehyde (about 90% of the essential oil from the bark) and, by reaction with oxygen as it ages, it darkens in color and forms resinous compounds.

Note, uses of cinnamon is varied and is definitely not limited to what is mentioned above! Try it yourself and you will see it works with much more than you imagine…

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