Cinnamon: a Spice Worthy of Its Wars

Casey is a freelance writer and chef in Seattle

Cinnamon has a spicy history. Wars have been fought over the right to trade it. The earliest reference to it appears in China about 2700 BC. Cinnamon was acquired by the ancient Greeks and Romans from Arabian traders, and at one time in ancient Rome the spice was more costly than gold.

There are actually two spices known as cinnamon. Both come from the dried bark of evergreen trees of the Lauraceae (laurel) family. True or Ceylon cinnamon comes from Cinnamomum zeylanicum, a tree native to Sri Lanka and the southwestern coast of India along the Arabian Sea. In the wild, this tree reaches 30 to 50 feet; when cultivated, it is kept to only about 8 feet so that its shoots are narrow and easily accessible, the bark thinner and more tender.

The less expensive Chinese cinnamon, otherwise known as cassia, comes from the related tree C. aromaticum and is produced more widely. From China it is exported as Kwangsi, Yunnan and Honan cinnamon; from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as Saigon cinnamon; and from Indonesia as Korintje, Padang and Vera cinnamon. Most of the cinnamon imported by the United States is cassia.


The various kinds are ground and blended to fit the specifications of the baking and food processing industries, but in the retail market, the product is generally sold as ground cinnamon with no further distinction. To find true Ceylon cinnamon, try specialty shops and Mexican and Latin American grocery stores.

An astonishing array of items make use of cinnamon’s aromatics: It is seductive in perfumes; gives freshness to breath mints, gum and toothpaste; and adds to the pretty smell of pomander and sachets. There are little cinnamon spice trees that scent our cars and, of course, cinnamon-flavored toothpicks.

Cinnamon is used in numerous traditional American recipes and can fill people with warm memories of baking apple pies, warm toast spread with butter and sprinkled liberally with cinnamon and sugar, holiday eggnog and cinnamon candy apples sold at country fairs. It’s amazing how many other foods we love are cinnamon-scented: baked apples, oatmeal with cinnamon, mincemeat pie, apple butter and applesauce spiked pink with cinnamon red-hot candies.

Snickerdoodles, the sugar cookie that is rolled in cinnamon and sugar before baking, has become an American classic, as has the beloved cinnamon roll. In fact, cinnamon rolls are the ultimate cinnamon treat when served warm from the oven, gooey with dripping frosting.

Jerilyn Brusseau has been baking cinnamon rolls with her mother and grandmother since she was 9. She grew up in a Snohomish, Wash., farmhouse that was the center of hospitality. Every Sunday, the family enjoyed fried chicken, baked beans and cinnamon rolls. Brusseau is the creator of the franchised Cinnabon cinnamon roll, and it has become one of the culinary highlights of her career.

Brusseau loves cinnamon for what she calls its sweetness, fragrance and homeyness. “It reminds me most of my grandmother and mother and all the wonderful foods they taught me to make,” she says.


Bharti Kirchner, cookbook author, lecturer and teacher of international cuisine, also inherited a love for cinnamon from her native India, where she learned to incorporate it in myriad dishes. Her favorite use is in rice dishes; she sautes whole cinnamon sticks in a little oil, as demonstrated in her recipe for simple yet elegantly flavored lemon-laced rice.

The popular and now quite trendy Indian drink chai is made by brewing milk and loose black tea with ground cinnamon, cloves and cardamom until the beverage becomes tea-colored, then straining it. Garam masala, a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cardamom, is used in finishing Indian vegetables and meat dishes. As Kirchner says, “It is the warming touch.”

Cinnamon, prized around the world, flavors the gamut of foods from Greek eggplant moussaka and spicy Indian curries to Mexican hot chocolate and Middle Eastern pastries. And although in most cuisines cinnamon is one of the most important spices in baking, in the United States it is associated almost exclusively with sweets.



1 cup warm water

3 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast or 3 cakes fresh yeast (5/8 ounce each)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup milk, scalded and cooled

3 large eggs

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted

1/2 cup raisins, optional

3 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, unsifted

Combine water, yeast and sugar in large mixing bowl and let stand 5 minutes. Add butter to cooling milk to soften. When cool, add milk mixture to yeast mixture and stir well. Add eggs and salt and stir well with wire whisk.

Begin adding all-purpose flour, mixing well with wooden spoon until mixture resembles thick cake batter. Add raisins. Add 2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour. Mix well again until dough is quite sticky and begins to leave sides of bowl.

Place 1/2 cup remaining whole wheat pastry flour onto board. Turn dough out and knead about 10 minutes until smooth and shiny, slowly adding more flour if needed. (Dough should be somewhat soft and resilient, almost sticky.)

Shape dough into ball and place in large greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover with damp towel. Let rise in warm place about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Turn dough onto large floured board. Roll out to 24x20-inch rectangle. (Dough will be quite thin.)


2 cups butter, melted

3 cups dark brown sugar, packed

6 tablespoons ground cinnamon

3/4 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Mix together melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Spread entire rectangle of dough with mixture (it should be very glossy in order to produce syrup). Sprinkle with walnuts. Roll rectangle tightly from long side (filling will be slightly runny and dough will be soft). Make sure seam side is on bottom. Shape with hands to make roll uniform in size from end to end.

With very sharp knife, cut roll into 16 equal portions. Place side by side, cut sides up, in 2 well-greased 13x93-inch metal baking pans. (Glass pans will tend to caramelize syrup too quickly.) Cover with warm, damp towel and let rise in warm place 30 to 40 minutes or until almost doubled in size.

Bake at 350 degrees until nicely browned and filling is bubbly, about 35 minutes. Immediately invert onto serving platter or baking sheet, allowing syrup to drip from pan onto rolls (this is the secret).

Makes 16 large cinnamon rolls.

Each serving contains about:

659 calories; 492 mg sodium; 113 mg cholesterol; 32 grams fat; 87 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.88 gram fiber.


This lemony rice goes well with fish or seafood dishes. The aroma of hot spices fills the air while this dish simmers. This recipe is from “The Healthy Cuisine of India” by Bharti Kirchner (Lowell House).

1 1/2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon oil or mustard oil

1 bay leaf

5 whole cardamom pods

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger root

1 1/2 tablespoons raisins or currants

1 cup basmati or long grain white rice

1/4 lemon, seeds removed

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup peas, fresh or thawed if frozen

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds

Salt, optional

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in pan over medium-low heat. Add bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon stick and cloves and saute a few seconds. Add ginger and saute until lightly browned, stirring often. Add raisins and rice and saute, stirring, until rice is opaque, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add lemon wedge and water. If using fresh peas, add at this point. Bring to boil. Lower heat slightly and simmer, covered, 18 to 20 minutes or until all water is absorbed and rice is tender and fluffy.

Sprinkle with lemon juice and sugar but do not stir rice. If using frozen peas, add at this point. Simmer, covered, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in small (6-inch diameter) skillet over medium-low heat. Add mustard seeds and saute a few seconds until they begin to pop. (You may need to cover skillet a few seconds to prevent seeds from flying out.) Remove from heat.

Pour oil and spice mixture over rice and mix gently. Season with salt. Discard lemon wedge, bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Serve piping hot.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Each serving contains about:

268 calories; 4 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.


This makes wonderful party food. The shrimp acquire hints of citrus and spice from the poaching liquid, but take care not to overcook them. The cocktail sauce gets its spicy kick from chipotle peppers instead of the traditional horseradish. Serve shrimp very cold or on ice.


1 (12-fluid ounce) bottle chili sauce

1 teaspoon grated lime peel

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1 tablespoon very finely minced, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine chili sauce, lime and orange peels, chiles, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce and cinnamon in bowl and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until needed. (Can be prepared up to 5 days in advance.) Makes 1 1/2 cups.


1 1/2 pounds shrimp (16 to 20 per-pound size, in the shell)

1 1/2 cups orange juice

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

1 teaspoon grated lime peel

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

2 teaspoons fresh lime or lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Lime wedges, optional

Peel and devein shrimp, reserving shells.

Combine orange juice, orange and lime peels, salt, cinnamon, cayenne, lime juice, cumin and reserved shells in medium saucepan. Bring mixture to rapid boil over high heat. Stir in shrimp. Cover tightly and cook 1 minute. Remove lid. Stir shrimp well and immediately replace cover. Cook 30 seconds longer. Remove pan from heat. Stir again and let cool, uncovered, 30 minutes in cooking liquid. Shrimp should be just cooked through when cooled. Cover and chill shrimp in cooking liquid. (Shrimp may be prepared 2 to 3 days in advance.)

To serve, toss shrimp in liquid, then remove to platter or crushed ice. Discard remaining liquid and shells. Serve with chipotle cocktail sauce and lime wedges.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

94 calories; 400 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.91 gram fiber.