Why add cinnamon to your daily winter regimen? Well, there are many excellent reasons: of course, its sweet aroma and slightly pungent flavor works wonders in a comforting hot beverage. It is also delicious in a fruit compote, a cobbler, on your toasts, in granola or cereals. It adds personality to many of your favorite recipes too: soups, lentil dishes or meat ragouts. Sweet or savory dishes will benefit from a pinch or two of cinnamon… And, more importantly, it has strong antioxydant powers, another interesting reason to use it as often as possible. There’s a lot more to cinnamon than sticky buns!
A Fascinating History
The history of Cinnamon is quite fascinating. For centuries, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British were ready to wage wars in the Middle East and southeastern Asia to control the cinnamon market. The spice originated in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). But it is also found nowadays in China, Brazil, Guyana, Java, Sumatra and the West Indies. One of the treasures of the mythical Spice route, Columbus and other explorers long searched for cinnamon. In 3000 B.C., Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in the embalming process and it was also believed to have strong medicinal powers to cure flu, coughing and to calm stomach aches. It was also considered a very efficient way to preserve food (which is still true today and is certainly convenient for paddlers). For centuries, cinnamon was considered of such high value that it was used as a currency. The famous Greek philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that 350 grams (10 oz) of cinnamon was worth the equivalent of 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of silver. And after Emperor Nero murdered his wife, he decided to show his people how his great remorse by ordering the equivalent of a year’s supply of cinnamon burned. Cinnamon traveled to Europe through the silk route.
One of the reasons for that passion over cinnamon was that for a long time it was seen as a strong medicine, with aphrodisiacal powers. Only the richest could afford to use it and, throughout the 17th Century, more than half the recipes of French cuisine would use cinnamon, as a mean to show wealth, power and exquisite taste. Its value declined in the 18th Century when other regions than Ceylon, such as Java, Sumatra, Borneo or Reunion Island discovered that they, too, could grow cinnamon.
Two Main Varieties of Cinnamon
Although there are a hundred varieties of Cinnamomum verum (the scientific name for cinnamon), only two types of cinnamon trees are used to make cinnamon. True cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum is the one that originates from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Its botanical name derives from amomom, which means fragrant spice in Hebrew and Arab. Italians call it canella, or little tube. The Chinese variety, Cinnamomun aromaticum, is also known as cassia. Both varieties come from the bark of a plant in the laurel family from which the outer layer of the bark is peeled during the rainy season and left to dry. Then the inner layer of that bark is curled into small quills, or cylinders. The Ceylon variety is considered more refined and subtle: its quills are thinner and, as a result, they roll on themselves to form cylinders in the drying process; its color is light beige and its taste is somewhat sweeter than Chinese cinnamon, or cassia. Chinese cinnamon, though, has a dark reddish tint, a more bitter taste and its quills will roll from both sides inward into a double cylinder because its bark is thicker. You won’t be surprised to learn that cassia is more widely used throughout the world, especially in North America, because of its cheaper price. But the quality is not the same either…
Cinnamon on the Health Front
Recent research tends to prove that cinnamon also has amazing healing properties due to an important concentration of three components found in the essential oils in the bark. The first one is called cinnamaldehyde and is known for its anti-clotting capacities. That’s because of cinnamon’s ability to reduce the release an inflammatory fatty acid called arachidonic acid from our cells’ membranes, which also puts cinnamon in the interesting category of anti-inflammatory natural ingredients. The second component gives important anti-microbial capabilities to cinnamon, so much so that research has shown that cinnamon extract can be used successfully in place of traditional food preservatives. That’s good news for us paddlers because food safety is always a concern when traveling in the wilderness...
Another study conducted by the US Agricultural Research Service has shown that less than half a teaspoon a day of cinnamon can dramatically reduce blood sugar levels in people with type-2 diabetes because cinnamon slows the rate at which the stomach empties after meals, reducing the rise in blood sugar. Researchers also noted that antioxydant compounds found in cinnamon seem to help the cells to absorb insulin better. 2 grams of cinnamon per day (1 tsp) could reduce by as much as a 40% the rise in blood sugar. Cholesterol and triglycerides are also lowered. Research conducted at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center and recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food chemistry seems to be very promising. A good source of fibers, manganese, calcium and iron, cinnamon also provides protection against other health conditions such as colon cancer, heart disease and stomach problems.
Cinnamon in the Kitchen
Now the fun part: culinary applications of this precious spice... Although in the western world cinnamon perfumes desserts, in India, Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco it is an essential ingredient of savory cuisine thanks to its amazing versatility. If for most North Americans, merely mentioning the word cinnamon brings to mind exquisite sticky buns, apple crisp, rice pudding, cappuccino or mulled wine, in the rest of the world this plant is linked to a very wide array of savory dishes, including recipes made with lamb, beef, chicken or eggplant. For instance, in India, cinnamon is a major component of any meat or vegetable curry, a dish cooked in sauce with fragrant spices such as fennel seeds, cumin, curcuma and ginger. It is also used to make the famous dhal, a lentil ragout, or the Mulligatawny soup, a reminiscence of the British colonial period. In Morocco, cinnamon can be found in the Ramadan soup, a flavorful combination of cracked wheat, parsley, tomato, ginger and chick peas, as well as in the lamb tajine, couscous, pastilla, roasted quail, squash or sweet potato dishes, as well as refreshing carrot salad with rose water. In Mexico, chocolate and cinnamon go hand in hand, while it is a major component of the North European gingerbread, ginger snap, mulled wine or cider.
A few suggestions to add more cinnamon in one’s life
As paddlers, campers and outdoor travelers, there are many ways we can spice up our active lives with this magic spice. Don’t be shy, and use it in all sorts of savory main dishes, not only for dessert! Cinnamon has the capacity to enhance all flavors!
- Cinnamon for Breakfast
- Sprinkle generously on your toasts or English muffins along with some maple syrup or honey and grated cheddar cheese.
- Use in French toast batter and pancake mix, add it to your favorite granola recipe, in your oatmeal and muffins.
- Try cinnamon in your morning yogurt with a handful of pumpkin seeds and a diced apple.
- A pinch of cinnamon in the morning omelet enhances the flavor of all ingredients.
- Cinnamon for Lunch
- You like hummus with pita wedges and veggies? Just add cinnamon to boost its taste and nutritional value.
- In an egg, tuna or chicken salad sandwich it does wonders.
- Add a pinch of cinnamon to a honey-mustard-lemon dressing and serve with your favorite slaw or salad.
- Cinnamon for Supper
- Mix ground lamb, onion, cinnamon, currants and make it into patties.
- For a quick dinner mix cooked rice, pine nuts, ground beef or ground soy protein and cinnamon.
- For an easy soup that is a complete meal, try this Middle East favorite: in chicken broth, throw some diced tomatoes, chick peas, fine cracked wheat, diced onions, parsley, cinnamon and ginger.
- Add a bit of cinnamon to your vegetable ragout.
- Grate your favorite root vegetables, press well to remove excess liquid, then make them into patties with a bit of flour and a beaten egg, add cinnamon and cook in an oiled skillet until done.
- Cut some sweet potatoes into very thin slices; sprinkle with salt, cinnamon, pepper and a bit of olive oil. Cook either in the oven uncovered or in aluminum foil on the camp fire.
- Mix chopped dry apricots, Dijon mustard, green onions, pine nuts, thyme, garlic and cinnamon. Stuff a pork loin with that mixture and cook either in the oven or in aluminum foil on the camp fire. You can prepare the meat, stuff it, freeze it and carry it with you as your first night meal on any kayak trip. It will thaw slowly on icepaks during the day.
- Cinnamon for Dessert (That's an easy one…)
- Add to your favorite recipe of carrot cake, banana loaf, bread or rice pudding.
- Mix some orange or clementine sections with any orange liquor (such as Grand Marnier). Add a bit of sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, one star anise and let stand at room temperature for at least 12 hours. It travels well in the bottom of your kayak during day time and will make a fine dessert at night…
- Mix honey, cinnamon, chopped walnuts and sprinkle over canned (or fresh) sliced pears.
- Mix maple syrup and cinnamon, sprinkle on apples or peaches cut in halves and cook in a bit of butter either in a skillet or over the camp fire in aluminum foil…
- Mix 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 pinch of chili flakes, sugar to taste and a few tbsp of hot water and stir to make a paste. Pour in 10 oz of hot milk for a delicious spicy hot chocolate.
- For an easy cake icing, mix equal parts of white sugar (or maple sugar) and cinnamon and sprinkle over any cake (or muffins) that comes right out of the oven.