Cassia Cinnamon

Considerable confusion has surrounded discussions of the scientific identities and the cultural origins of various “cinnamons” found in the historical records of the spice trade. However, Cinnamomum cassia (formerly known as C. aromaticum) has a flavor and history distinctly different from the rest of its namesake. Best known as cassia or Chinese cinnamon, there is no reason to refer to it in English as a “bastard cinnamon,” as some have in the past, for it is in not way inferior to the others. Although many would agree that its array of flavors is a bit simpler than that of so-called true cinnamon, it is also more straightforwardly intense, due to the higher oil content in its reddish brown bark. Like other extracts derived from the tall cone-shaped evergreen trees of the genus Cinnamomum, its warm and savory notes are derived not from true wood but from the inner bark of the trees, where most of the potent aromatic oils are found.

 An extremely high concentration of cinnamaldehyde in its essential oil is what gives cassia and most other cinnamons their spicy sweetness. But unlike true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cassia also contains significant amounts of coumarin, a blood-thinning agent. Some Asian populations have genetically adapted to coumarin in their food in beneficial ways, but particularly vulnerable individuals could suffer dangerous health effects if cassia is taken with other blood-thinning agents. Most people who consume cassia sparingly find it to be delicately, rather than cloyingly, sweet, with a pleasantly woody aftertaste.

Cassia cinnamon grows wild in a few southeastern Chinese provinces, such as Guangdong and Guangxi, although much of its production today is from managed cultural landscapes rather than truly natural habitats. But it is also native to Assam and Myanmar and has long been cultivated in Vietnam. When the trees reach harvestable age, a square of inner bark is massaged by harvesters before being incised. It forms a thick, scroll-like tube often referred to as a cork, which is then left to dry and age. The inner bark of cassia is thicker and rougher than the bark of other cinnamons and has a course, dark brown surface that exudes the slightly bitter aroma of camphor, though cassia, unlike Sri Lankan or Ceylon cinnamon, doesn’t contain eugenol. Less commonly sought outside the areas in which the trees are grown are the caperlike floral buds, which echo the flavors of allspice and pepper in addition to cinnamon, and the leaves, the oils of which are distilled.

The original name for cassia in at least some of the many Chinese dialects may have been kwei-shi. In 216 BCE, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi, renamed one of the most prized spots that he conquered for a cassia grove cultivated there, calling it Kweilin, or Guilin, the present capital of Guangxi Province.

The extra-local trade of cassia dates back to antiquity, when it was carried along certain routes predating the appearance of other cinnamon species. It is identifiable in herbals from the second and third century BCE, and it is likely that the cinnamon referred to in the Bible is cassia and not true cinnamon. According to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in Greek around the middle of the first century CE, cassia was being moved through Indian harbors and shipped past the Gulf of Aden to Somalia. But these maritime traders did not necessarily know where the cassia was harvested.

In time, Sogdian and Persian traders on the Silk Roads did become aware of the source of the spice and named it dar-chin, with the chin referring to China and the dar possibly meaning fragrant or spicy wood. The Uighur in western China still use the term dar as a generic reference to spices. Cassia is also referred to as darchibi in Bengali, dal chini in Hindi, tarçin in Eastern Turkic, darichini in Georgian, and addarsin in Arabic.

It appears that Jewish or other Semitic traders introduced cassia to Europe, for their Hebrew term ketsiah (also the name for Job’s daughter) is echoed in Greek kasia, as well as in terms found in most of the Romance languages. By the time cassia and other cinnamons had been traded through Central Asia and India to the West, their origins had been wonderfully mythologized. In The History, the very gullible Herodotus wrote that huge birds in Arabia used cinnamon quills to build their nests, and in order for the Arabs to secure the cinnamon for themselves, they would put big chunks of meat on the ground under the nests. The birds, tempted by the food, would carry it up to their homes, thereby forcing the nests to collapse under so much weight. As the nesting materials fell to the ground, the cinnamon would be gathered by the ever-patient Arabs waiting below them. If that were not enough, Heodotus also believed that cassia grew in shallow lakes in Arabia, where it was protected by loud, pesky bats. Only Arabs fully covered in protective leather garb could shield themselves from the bats’ wrath and collect sufficient cassia to make its transport to Europe worth the risk of having their eyes plucked out by the protective bats.

Cassia finds its way into many of the great spice mixtures of the world, from five-spice powder in China to baharat and qalat daqqa in the Middle East to moles and recaudos in Mexico. Most of my Lebanese kin prepare kibbe, kefta, and lahem meshwi by first seasoning the lamb with cassia. But my most frequent encounter with cassia is far from its home and mine, in Latin America. From the semiarid Mexican Altiplano all the way to Guatemala, there are local communities who cannot imagine drinking hot coffee unless it is laced with cassia. In fact, for them, cassia is cinnamon.  

 

Resources: 
Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed May 4, 2013.
Musselman, Lytton John. Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.
Weiss, E.A. Spice Crops. Wallingford, U.K.: CABI Publishing, 2002.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2cRfRye
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press