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Food in the 'Hood

“Sweet Wood”: Cinnamon – Part II

Part I of this essay explored the ancient lore of cinnamon and cassia, its sister spice.

The tiny island of Ceylon, with its treasure trove of wild cinnamon, beckoned to the Portuguese empire builders. Control of Serandîb, as the Arabs called it, would give the Iberians a monopoly of the luxury spice. The island’s bark, more delicate than China’s pungent cassia, was regarded as the “true” cinnamon. It was stripped from hardy evergreens that bore white flowers and black berries in the island’s forests.

The Portuguese had already built forts and trading posts along the spice-rich Malabar coast of southwestern India. Moreover, their empire’s Asian capital and chief entrepôt, Goa, was conveniently close to the coveted island.

An ancient trading center, Ceylon had enthralled visitors like the 13th century Arab geographer Qazwini: “The island of Silan . . . is large. . . . Here is mount Sirandib upon which Adam was thrown down from Paradise. The wonders of China and the rarities of India are brought to Silan. Many aromatics not to be found elsewhere are met with here, such as cinnamon, brazilwood, sandalwood, nard, and cloves.” More than a 100 years later, the famous Arab voyager Ibn Battuta observed the “whole of the coast . . . covered with trunks of wood brought down by the rivers.”

The Portuguese seized Ceylon in 1536 and forced its king to deliver an annual tribute of cinnamon. The king, now a dependent, had once been the master of his dominion’s spice. The Salgamas, an hereditary caste of cinnamon peelers, were exploited by the Portuguese to do the arduous labor of gathering and preparing the aromatic for market.

Bursting with the spice, the “cinnamon fleete” sailed from Goa, where the cargo had been hauled, for Lisbon. Besides cinnamon, the vessels carried exotic goods like ivory figurines, mats, crystal, straw hats, and elephants. The most precious of the products weighed down the ships. In 1610, Captain Jean Mocquet, according to historian Anthony Disney, wrote that steering was a “great deal of trouble because the ship had cinnamon almost as far as the middle of the mast.”

The lure of cinnamon produced a frenzy among the Portuguese. “At the scent of this cinnamon the kingdom loses its people,” Sa de Miranda, a 16th century poet writes. Michael Ondaatje, the Ceylon-born Canadian author, feels that the thirst for conquest of the spice island was whetted by cinnamon’s intoxicating aroma: “Captains would spill cinnamon on the deck and invite customers to smell Ceylon before the island even came into view.”

The import acquired great prestige among Europe’s upper classes. “Synamome,” the 15th century naturalist John Russell proclaimed, was for “lordes” while cassia was for “commyn people.” On the Continent, cinnamon was not only popular in the kitchen. It was also an appealing tonic, a sedative for childbirth, and a breath sweetener. The Portuguese sold Europeans a liqueur distilled from the half-dried bark.

The Dutch expelled the Portuguese and took over Ceylon in 1656. The new occupiers were as obsessed with cinnamon as their predecessors had been. “No lover is as jealous of his mistress as the Dutch are of their trade in spices,” a French writer commented in 1697. However, while the Portuguese had been trader-adventurers, the Dutch were unrelenting businessmen. When prices of cinnamon dropped, the profiteers burned the spice in the Netherlands. Ultimately, the Dutch transformed the haphazard industry into a ruthlessly, efficient system. They established plantations to reap greater profits from their crop.

Cinnamon lost some of its luster as the spice was transplanted to new lands, like the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion. Gradually, cinnamon became less scarce and the less exclusive province of the aristocracy.

Might the fabled spice also grow in the New World? Columbus thought so. “I believe I have discovered rhubarb and cinnamon,” he crowed. In 1540, Gonzalo Pizzaro, brother of the Spanish conquistador Hernando, set off on an ill-fated expedition in search of cinnamon. In quest of La Canela, the Valley of Cinnamon, he led 2,000 soldiers through the mountains of eastern Ecuador. Two years later, Pizarro gave up and returned with only 80 men. There were plants in Latin America that resembled cinnamon and had a similar fragrance, but the cinnamon of Asia did not exist there. The Spanish were forced to export the spice to their colonies. Some of their subjects — like the Mexicans, who flavored both coffee and hot chocolate with cinnamon — became avid users of the aromatic.

In an age of cinnamon buns and cinnamon toast, it often feels that the once magical spice has lost its allure. One group of Washington newcomers, however, seem to revel in cinnamon. The Ethiopians, heirs of an old spice trading culture, are passionate about it. Cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom scent their tea. Cinnamon adds zest to their rice and stews. For these immigrants, cinnamon is more than a pleasing flavor. It is a heavenly perfume.

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Cinnamon Treats

Addisu Gebeya (2202 18th St., NW, tel., 986-6013) is an emporium of Ethiopian spices. Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon are on offer. The shop sells containers filled with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, the culture’s basic tea spices.

Penzeys Spices (1-800-741-7787), an excellent spice distributor, is a good place to purchase Ceylon Cinnamon, which is often hard to find locally.

 

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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