QT 79 – A Tale of Two Cinnamons

QT  79 – A Tale of Two Cinnamons

It was the best of spice, it was the worst of spice. It was a seasoning of Light, it was a seasoning of Darkness, the spring of hope, and the winter of despair – in short, the condiment was so far like the present condiment, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. A fair day, night, even and morn to you all, herein we shall find another treatise borne of Kitchen Catastrophes, “A Quick Tip, part Seventy-Nine: the Cinn-ful Secrets of Cinnamon”. I’m your Dickensian dictator, in the sense of ‘one whom dictates’, not in the sense of a despotic temporal authority, and is this grating on anyone else?

I mean, I get it, good Ol’ Charlie was paid by the word, so of course he was going to stuff his texts fatter than a Christmast goose, but still, that weighs on a man. I’m going to take my “authorial impersonation dial” and turn it down a couple notches so we all leave here with our wits still about us. That alright with you? Excellent. Anywho, as I indicated amid my aforementioned excessive eloquence, today’s topic is tackling Cinnamon. What is it? Where does it come from? And what’s the difference between the various kinds I can buy in the store? Why does Jon keep starting his posts with three-part (four, now) questions?  We’ll see if we find time to answer them, once we’ve cured the various terrible diseases we got from working in Victorian factories.


A Dreadful, Terroir-ible, Cinque-pace Problem

I must confess, dear readers, however, that I feel I cannot fully abandon the Dickensian dictation, for you see, without it, I must re-write my title, and find an entirely new theme. For you see, while I intended to speak on the divide between the two main varieties of cinnamon, I find that in reality, there are roughly FIVE primary varieties of cinnamon. Ain’t that a bitch? So let’s tear apart the varieties, and what exactly we’re dealing with.

As I hope isn’t surprising, cinnamon the spice is actually the bark of a type of tree found in tropical climate. By which I mean I hope the bark part isn’t surprising. I’m fine if you didn’t know they’re a tropical plant, but I’d be concerned if you thought this was a seed or something.


Like, what was this if NOT bark?
I can kind of see “dried stem”, but that’s BASICALLY bark.

The terminology here is just super fucking fun. Technically, there is a “true” cinnamon plant: Cinnamomum verum, literally “true cinnamon” in Latin, so SOMEBODY was picking a fight that day in the botany lab. It’s more commonly called Ceylon Cinnamon, because it was found in Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka USED to be named Ceylon, like how Myanmar used to be named Burma. In fact, like a LOT of Southeast Asia, the changing of the name was an important part in a MULTIPLE DECADE CIVIL WAR, and like a lot of the WORLD, was greatly influenced by it achieving independence from its former colonial masters.) Ceylon cinnamon is also called canela in Spanish, from the Latin for “Little Tubes”

SO, true cinnamon comes from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, what of its imposters? Well, they’re less ‘imposters’ and more “variants”. Variants that I assume are true-breeding examples of the effects of terroir. I’ve touched on this topic once before (and had a Frenchman do it another time), but let’s re-establish what we already know in expanded detail, to reconnect with our Dickens theme: terroir is the concept that a particular food is shaped, flavored, and built on where it is FROM. This is most prominent in wine (where grapes grown in different regions have different profiles), cheeses (where the latent bacterium in the air, caves, and region shape the molds, and therefore flavors that develop in the milk as it ages) and bread (where the latent YEASTS in the air similarly shape the rise and flavoring of the result) This is why San Francisco has such great sourdough: it’s literally “something in the air” that makes it better. This does happen to a lesser degree in other foods, but for now, let’s focus on the plants. Over generations, the other four cinnamon trees (called “cassias” by some, for reasons that will become obvious shortly) grew in other regions, and ended up with different flavor profiles due to the different minerals in the soil.

Cinnamomum Cassia or “Chinese Cinnamon” is the heaviest hitter of them. By which I mean its sales OUTNUMBER the sales of “true” cinnamon. In fact, it’s the primary cinnamon consumed in the UK, The US, and INDIA. It’s the winner of the popularity contest, if nothing else. This is because it’s actually spicier than Ceylon Cinnamon, which is more aromatic and floral than pungent. Cassia is typically the cinnamon used to make curries, for this reason, hence its popularity in India.


I want to eat
a Massaman.

So, in case you missed it, since the most popular not “true” cinnamon is named a Cassia, that’s a term used for the other fakers. Interestingly, it’s derived from the Hebrew for “stripped bark” or “bark strips”. Which is interesting because CINNAMON is also derived from another Hebrew word: qinamon, which means…”fuck if anyone knows”. Seriously, here’s the actual etymology “from the Latin, from the Phoencian, from the Hebrew, qinamon, “A WORD OF FOREIGN ORIGIN”” And no one knows who the Herbrews got their word from, or why. It KIND of looks like the Malaysian word for ‘sweet wood’, it mght be from the idea of “pipe-amomum”, meaning “the pipe version of the same kind of spice as cardamomum and costamomum”, but no one knows. Hebrew just showed up with the word qinamon, and no one questioned it. So there are three names, cinnamon, canela, and cassia, and ALL of them come from Latin, and two from Hebrew. But, broadly, in English, they’re called “cinnamons”, or, among the more precise, Ceylon is cinnamon, and the others are “Cassias”

blizzard style.png

Today, on Jon’s Deep-Cut jokes: a visual pun based off one of 86 characters in a MOBA that was recently moved into maintenance mode.
Surely, there’s a robust overlap between people interested in the distinctions and etymology of baking spices, and those who play less-popular Blizzard MOBAs.

Hence Saigon Cinnamon, also called “Vietnamese cinnamon/cassia”. And while Chinese cinnamon is popular because it’s spicier than Ceylon, Saigon is more expensive because it’s hotter still, having TWICE the spice potency of Chinese cinnamon. It also, tragically, has the highest amount of coumarin, making it the most dangerous form of cinnamon.


Our Villain is Revealed

Oh, did I not mention? Cinnamon is poisonous. Or, rather, coumarin is, and cinnamon has it. Coumarin is actually the unrefined form of a RAT POISON. Now, before you get into a panic: firstly, it’s more toxic to rats than it is to humans, and further the dosage limit means the odds of it really hurting you are relatively low. The median dose (meaning the point at which you have a 50% chance of death) is 275 mg/kg. To put that in perspective, to hit that number, I’d personaly need to eat over an entire CUP of cinnamon. (I think, the math is kind of confusing vis a vis milligrams of coumarin per gram of cinnamon) The recommended max daily dose is much lower, of course. Basically, you shouldn’t have more than, by my math, 2 tablespoons of straight cinnamon a day. This, by the way, is why doctors were against that cinnamon challenge a couple years back: since the smaller you are, the easier you are to poison, a kid around 50 pounds would only need like, 3 tablespoons to hit the 50% chance of death number.


Though, given the volume LOST per tablespoon in the Cinnamon challenge, I don’t know that the risk is truly all that high.

Now, while Saigon has the highest amount of coumarin, that knocks it down to “you shouldn’t eat more than a whole teaspoon of it per day”. By contrast, and interestingly, True Cinnamon has an order of magnitude LESS coumarin than any of the cassias. Like, depending on the batch of true cinnamon, my tolerance level would shoot from a cup to OVER A GALLON. Which is a small detail in its favor: if you really want to just consume a shit ton of cinnamon, it’s medically safest to snort

Next is Indonesian cinnamon who is…well, something of a dark horse, as it were. Indonesia is actually the world’s largest producer of cinnamon, beating out China. And while China’s cinnamon is the most consumed in the US, Indonesia’s is…well, it’s “the most common and cheapest cinnamon available” in the market. Which I can only assume means like, Wal-mart store brand is all Indonesian.

not great.png

Now THIS can poison some kids!
(Didn’t expect I’d be making that dark of a punchline when I started this post, but none of us know the future. Except the Ghost of Christmas Future, of course.)

The last option is Malabar cinnamon. It’s going to be much less fiery than the other cassias, and actually is noted for having a citrusy, lemon-grass like quality.  Of the ‘major’ cinnamons, it really kind of got in on a technicality, as it makes up something like 3% of the global cinnamon market.

While there are actually DOZENS of other cinnamon/cassia plants, these five are the ones you’re most likely to see. So let’s briefly recap our main points:

Ceylon Cinnamon is technically the only ‘true’ cinnamon. It’s more aromatic and less “spicy” than other cinnamons.

Chinese Cinnamon, or “cassia”, is the most commonly consumed ‘cinnamon’, with a solid amound of spiciness.

Saigon Cinnamon is the spiciest, but also the most dangerous, given the coumarin issue.

Indonesian Cinnamon is the name-brand, cheap cinnamon.


Malabar cinnamon is a rather fringe, citrusy style of cinnamon.

These differences should hopefully help you figure out which type you want to keep on hand and/or use in a given recipe. This is an ‘argument’ taken up across cultures: While cassia is the cinnamon of choice for curries, Mexican moles almost always use Ceylon, and Vietnamese pho relies on Saigon cinnamon. Some sources recommend saving your Ceylon for sauces and simple dishes with few competing flavors, and using your cassias for baking, since cassias can afford to lose some of their oils to the heat of baked goods.

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