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Food in the 'Hood

“Sweet Wood”: Cinnamon – Part I

Young men should be wary of women “whose feet abide not in their home” and who invite them back to their cinnamon-scented beds. These temptresses, the Hebrew proverb says, offer an amorous evening: “Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning.” In the ancient world, cinnamon and its lower-status sister, cassia, were prized for their aromatic powers. But it was rarely used in this age to season food and only then to flavor wine.

(When I can reasonably pinpoint which of the two spices is referred to, I will use their different names; otherwise I will use the generic term cinnamon).

The Bible’s Song of Solomon called the Eastern spice “one of the chief perfumes.” And, an anonymous poet addressed a royal bride, “Your robes are redolent of myrrh, aloeswood and kasia.” In addition, cinnamon played spiritual and ceremonial roles. The Lord commanded Moses to anoint the holy tabernacle with the oil of cinnamon. Gold-encased cinnamon, the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote, adorned his city’s temples. Sappho, the Greek poet, evoked the atmosphere of a wedding in Troy: “Myrrh, cassia and frankincense rose in smoke . . . all the old women wailed and the men raised a fine cry.”

The ancients embalmed the dead with cinnamon and it was burned at funerals. After the Roman emperor Nero’s pregnant wife died (from being kicked in the stomach by her husband), Nero ordered that all of the city’s cinnamon be gathered and then burned in the funeral pyre.

Cinnamon could also be a cosmetic. The elegant men of Rome massaged their faces and perfumed their hair with malabathrum, an oil drawn from the leaves of tajpat, a cinnamon tree relative.

Cinnamon was also avidly sought because of its medicinal reputation. The spice was a key ingredient, the Greek physician Galen noted, in the antidotes for treatment of poisonous bites. The compounds evolved into all-purpose drugs.

So coveted was cinnamon that the spice became a luxury item. Pliny estimates it was worth 15 times as much as silver. Since spices were so magical, many believed that they emanated from an Eden-like place. “Rare cinnamon,” the Roman poet Prudentis claimed, originated in Paradise.

Others wove fabulous tales about the spice’s mysterious origins. The Greek historian Herodotus passed on these stories in his chronicles. He traced cinnamon to the birds’ nests in the steep heights of Arabia: “The Arabians say that the dry sticks . . . are brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb. . . . People cut up the bodies of dead oxen into very large joints, and leave them on the ground near the nests. They then scatter, and the birds fly down and carry the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon. Acquired in this way, it is exported to other countries.”

Cassia, Herodotus recounted, came from an equally terrifying location in Arabia. Cinnamon cutters braved “winged creatures like bats,” which flew menacingly around a lake in which the tree grew.

Other accounts placed the fragrant spice in the “Cinnamon Country,” the region of the Horn of Africa. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt, the story goes, sent five ships to explore the Land of Punt, present-day Somalia, in quest of spices and other riches. The boats returned laden with cinnamon, gold, ivory, and incense. Ethiopia was another nearby land fabled to have treasures of cinnamon.

Contrary to these tales, cinnamon did not grow in Arabia, Somalia, or Ethiopia. Their dry climates and inadequate rainfall were not congenial for the spice. The merchants were hiding the source of their product. This kept potential competitors out of their business and boosted the prices of their product. The spice’s reputed locations were, in fact, transshipment points on its long voyage from the East.

The Arabs, who named it dar sini, or wood of China, knew where the cassia was coming from. It was native to Southern China and Vietnam. Cinnamon, on the other hand, was grown first in Sri Lanka, the tiny island off the tip of India that the Arabs called Sarandîb. Both spices were prepared from the dried bark of tropical evergreens, tall trees that, in the wild, can tower to 40 or 50 feet. Members of the laurel family, which includes the avocado and bay laurel, these trees when cultivated are cropped to form low bushes.

Cinnamon, which comes from a Greek word, kinamon, or “sweet wood,” has a thinner bark and a more delicate flavor than cassia. Cassia’s bark is thicker and its spice has a more intense, pungent taste. Today’s spice connoisseurs regard cinnamon as the true spice and cassia as an impostor. When we buy cinnamon, we may actually be getting cassia or a mixture of the two spices.

The Chinese have long been enthusiastic about cassia. The aromatic was their earliest recorded spice. The trees grew wild in large forests in the high mountains of the tropical south. The plant was quickly domesticated. An ingredient today in Chinese five-spice powder and a flavoring for braised meat, cassia was revered for its purifying fragrance. It was used to cleanse the air of temples after the burning of the dead and was valued as a meat preservative. A taste of the “Bark of Life,” the Chinese believed, assured immortality. Eating a mixture of toad’s brains and cassia for 10 years, the Chinese philosopher Bao-po-zi counseled, would enable one to walk on water and live forever.

Quills of curled-up cassia were sent west. (The Greeks called the quill a syrinx, or pipe. Later the Italians introduced the word cannella, or little tube, which came from their name for cannon, to describe it). The spice was also sent in ways that would astound moderns. Twigs and branches of the tree were one mode. A whole tree might even be shipped. The physician Galen provided Emperor Marcus Aurelius with a box of cassia for his medical treatment. The box, Galen wrote, was “shipped from the land of the barbarians, four and a half cubits long, in which was a whole cinnamon tree of the finest quality.”

Cassia probably arrived in Greece and Rome by the 7th Century B.C. But how did it get there from Asia? Guessing the spice’s route has been a rich area for speculation. Pliny thought he had the answer about its secret transporters: “[They] carry it over vast tracts of sea, upon rafts, which are neither steered by rudder, nor impelled by oars or sails. Nor yet are they aided by resources of art, man alone, and his daring boldness, standing in place of all these.” The sailors, Indonesians, followed the monsoon winds in their outrigger canoes.

Building on clues from Pliny and from other sources, historian J. Innes Miller fleshed out the rest of the story. In his version, the mariners sailed the Indian Ocean to the island of Madagascar (which was settled by Indonesians). From there, they traveled up the coast of East Africa, probably to an entrepôot across from the island of Zanzibar. Arab or Phoenician traders purchased the cinnamon there and then oversaw its journey to the Red Sea and ultimately to the Mediterranean.

What reward did the sailors get for their labors?  Pliny commented in characteristically sardonic form: “In return for their wares, they bring back articles of glass and copper, cloths, buckles, bracelets and necklaces; hence it is that this traffic depends chiefly upon capricious female fidelity to fashion.”

Next month in Part II: In hot pursuit of spices, the Portuguese seize Ceylon, birthplace to the finest cinnamon. Cinnamon is absorbed in European cooking.

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Cinnamon Treats

Firehook Bakery and Coffee House (1909 Q St.; tel., 588-9296). You can snack on apple cinnamon pecan scones, cinnamon cheese buns, cinnamon rugelach, and sweet dream cookies enriched with chocolate chips, ginger, and cinnamon at this Dupont Circle shop.

Mourayo (1732 Conn. Ave.; tel., 667-2100). The Greek restaurant’s lamb stew with orzo is flavored with cinnamon.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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