Cinnamon red hots remind many of us of childhood, when the tiny crimson morsels had an irresistible allure. Pop a handful into our mouths, and we’d experience a burst of spicy sweetness. We didn’t know it then, but that bold flavor derives from a phenolic compound found in the cinnamon species called cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamomum verum originates in Sri Lanka, but has become a widespread species and is one of the most common spices in kitchens around the world. Although cinnamon is prized for its medicinal and culinary benefits, traditional methods of cinnamon cultivation are hazardous to the workers’ health. Today, in the land of its origin, innovative Sri Lankans are working to establish organic production processes and improve the lives of the marginalized castes who cultivate this essential spice.
Origins of cinnamon
Cinnamomum is a tree belonging to the laurel family. Out of more than 250 species distributed in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, three are of particular interest for the kitchen and medicine cabinet. C. verum, Ceylon cinnamon, is a small evergreen tree native to tropical southern India and Sri Lanka. The inner bark of its branches is cut off in strips and dried, forming brittle, pale reddish-brown quills. Cinnamomum aromaticum, commonly referred to as Chinese cassia, is a medium-sized evergreen tree whose origins lie in Chinese and Southeast Asian soils. The cultivated trees are kept as coppices and prevented from growing taller than 10 feet. It is the outer bark of this species that is cut and dried, resulting in thicker, often darker red quills. Cinnamomum tamala originates in the southern Himalayas. Its leaves, rather than its bark, are used extensively in cooking and traditional medicine in northern regions of South Asia.
C. verum has a delicate flavor, but C. aromaticum has more cinnamaldehyde, giving it a bolder sweetness preferred for baking in the United States. C. tamala leaves predominate in Mughal cuisines, where they are used in curries and in garam masala mixtures. Kashmiris sometimes substitute C. tamala leaves for betel leaves to make paan, a common after-dinner digestive. Culinary historian K.T. Achaya notes in A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food that the ancients felt the best cinnamon came from young trees in Sri Lanka. In early southern India, milk curds were seasoned with pepper, ginger and cinnamon. Cinnamon lends itself equally well to sweet and savory dishes. My mother makes the most sublime muttar pilau (pea and rice “pilaf”). The rice is ghee-glistening and bathed in the aromas of cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, black pepper and cumin (recipe below).
Ayurveda classical texts such as Charaka and Susruta contain more than 20 categories of what modern-day science calls diabetes (Type 1 or 2). In Sanskrit, it is broadly categorized as prameha – an overproduction of urine. According to Susruta, sitting on soft cushions and/or sleeping for long periods of time are a major cause of prameha. Ayurvedic practitioners developed a large repertoire of pills, pastes and extractions that include cinnamon species.
All spices derive their distinct flavors from a mixture and concentration of volatile oils, and cinnamon species are no different. Cinnamaldehyde, the phytochemical that gives red hots their heat, predominates in both Ceylon and cassia cinnamons. Eugenol, the volatile oil with anesthetic qualities that infuses clove oil, is also found in Ceylon cinnamon. However, according to Science Daily, researchers found that cassia also contains small amounts of coumarin, a naturally occurring substance that can cause liver damage if consumed in excessive amounts.
Although the volatile oils in Ceylon and cassia cinnamons differ, both are used for similar purposes in German, British and French pharmacopeias. Generally, cinnamon is prescribed for loss of appetite, mild spasms of the gastrointestinal tract, bloating and flatulence. Herbalists may prescribe cinnamon powder, an infusion or decoction, extract, tincture or the essential oil. Cinnamon oil is also known for its antioxidant, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. A recent review of more than 200 research articles on Ceylon cinnamon and cassia shows that the cinnamons have blood-sugar lowering properties, the researchers concluded in Critical Reviews in Foods, Science, and Nutrition journal. Clinical studies in humans, though less consistent, indicate that cinnamon may have modest effects on blood glucose in people with Type 2 diabetes. C. tamala leaves, while less researched, demonstrate similar, if not stronger, blood glucose lowering effects in test tube and animal studies.
According to Siril Wijesundara of the Sri Lankan National Botanic Garden, cinnamon holds high importance in Sri Lankan culture in addition to being a valued commodity. In fact, 75 to 80 percent of the world’s C. verum is produced in Sri Lanka. Yet cinnamon cultivation in that country remains hazardous for the health of the workers and the environment. Working conditions are unsanitary, and workers lack protective gear and appropriate tools. The toes of many older longtime cinnamon harvesters are permanently crooked in a V from holding cinnamon branches while they strip off the bark. In part because of the harsh working conditions, those who cultivate cinnamon experience intense social ostracism. Sulfur, which is typically used as a fumigant during the drying process, can cause headaches, nausea, rashes or sinus problems with prolonged exposure.
Social entrepreneurs K.D.N Weerasinghe of the University of Ruhunu in Sri Lanka and Darin Gunesekera — both of whom received Ashoka Fellowships in recognition of their innovative efforts to improve the lives of the most marginalized — are making C. verum a sustainable crop that benefits the overlooked castes who cultivate it. Using Sri Lankan and German technology, they created a state-of-the-art cinnamon factory with a faster, more efficient drying apparatus that does not require the use of sulfur. Cinnamon is organically grown and processed by well-paid workers who are given appropriate equipment. To learn more and see how you may support Weerasinghe’s and Gunesekera’s work, contact the U.S. distributor, Culinary Truths.
Perhaps our choice of spices should reflect not only the immediate quality of the spice, but also the environment in which it is grown and how the people who cultivate the plants are treated and compensated. Only then is the cycle of cultivation and consumption complete and resilient for the sake of people and plants.
Bilqis’ Muttar Pilau (Peas and Rice)
- Rinse rice under cold water and drain.
- Heat a heavy bottom pan to medium-high heat and add ghee.
- Add cinnamon, black peppers, black cardamom, cumin and cloves and allow to sizzle (10 to 30 seconds) but do not let burn.
- Add wet rice to pan and stir without breaking the grains until they are coated in ghee and the water has evaporated (2 to 4 minutes).
- Add 3½ cups of the boiling water (adjust for brown rice).
- Add peas and gently stir.
- Bring to a simmer and cover pot with a secure lid.
- Let simmer for 8 to 12 minutes (longer for brown rice) until rice is fluffy and grains are separate.
Photo: Cinnamomum aromaticum. Credit: Sarah Khan