One bite of hot buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar explains this spice’s enduring popularity. It is a fixture in North American and European baking, flavoring sticky buns, raisin bread, custards and creams, cookies and candy. In Spain and Mexico, it is often paired with chocolate. But cinnamon has the personality for savory dishes as well. Chili is often sparked by its warmth, as are Middle Eastern and North African dishes like lamb tagine and chicken stew. To go Indian style, try adding a pinch to rice pilaf with chopped dried apricots and green onions.
Cinnamon is the dried bark of tropical evergreen trees of the genus Cinnamomum. A thin layer of bark is stripped from the tree and dried in the sun, which makes it curl into the familiar quill shape of stick cinnamon. Cinnamon is characteristically woody, musty, and earthy in flavor and aroma. It is available as whole sticks, ground and as extract.
Cinnamon grows in the tropical highlands of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. Sri Lankan cinnamon comes from a small, young tree and has a very thin bark that releases a mild flavor with a citrusy note. It is not commonly used in the U.S. Vietnamese cinnamon is from a large, older tree and yields a stronger, bolder taste profile similar to cinnamon red-hot candies. Indonesian cinnamon, also known as Korintji, has a delicate flavor — warm and sweet with a touch of spicy.
Indonesian cinnamon is what most Americans have enjoyed since childhood. It grows prolifically in the majestic volcanic mountain ranges of Western Sumatra. Korintji is actually the name of a famous volcanic mountain that still has cinnamon trees growing wild alongside newer, cultivated trees.
Vietnamese cinnamon, also known as Saigon, is the most coveted and exotic cinnamon available. Though, in America, we’ve only been able to enjoy its premium taste during the past decade, Saigon is well worth a try. The word for cinnamon in Vietnamese is que (pronounced “kway”). Saigon cinnamon has double the amount of volatile oil of Korintji. The volatile oil is what delivers the flavor and aroma — higher content means greater intensity.
Almost all Vietnamese cinnamon is grown on small farms with trees cultivated from seedlings. The best bark comes from trees that are 15–25 years of age. As a result, only a small quantity — less than 1,000 tons — of premium bark is harvested each year. At harvest time, the farmers cut down the trees and remove the bark, in three-foot sections, with a small knife. The first three feet from the base of the tree have the thickest bark and highest flavor concentration. The higher up the tree, the thinner and less flavorful the bark.
Sun drying, over a period of several days, causes the bark to curl into quills, which are sorted by bark thickness and general appearance, then prepared for sale in a nearby village market.
No spice rack is complete without two essential types of cinnamon — Korintji and Saigon. Think Korintji for sweeter, balanced flavor and Saigon for a more robust, intense taste. Korintji cinnamon, simply labeled “cinnamon,” is ideal for cakes, pancakes, French toast, oatmeal cookies, cinnamon buns, apple pie, mashed sweet potatoes, and spice rubs for chicken and pork. Saigon cinnamon is best used in dishes that have a more complex flavor, such as roasted vegetables, tart and citrus fruits, steak rubs, marinades and vinaigrettes, chili, and stews.
Once considered a prized gift for royalty, cinnamon has a long and colorful history. Ancient Egyptians used it for cosmetics and embalming, sending buying expeditions to present-day Somalia in hopes of obtaining it by sea through spice-trading routes from Southeast Asia. The word cinnamon means “sweet wood” in Malay. The Romans believed cinnamon to be sacred and burned it at funerals. Cinnamon was one of the first spices sought in the 15th century European explorations, and some say it indirectly led to the discovery of America.