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Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. It is native to the island Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), south-west India and the Tenasserim Hills of Burma. Related cinnamon species are found in Indonesia, Vietnam and China. There are many different species; the two main varieties are Cinnamomum cassia (the Chinese variety) and Cinnamomum zeylanicum or Ceylon Cinnamon. Compared to the Chinese species, Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in color and has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than cassia.
Both the bark and leaves of the cinnamon tree are aromatic. The outer bark and the inner lining are scraped off and the remaining bark is left to dry completely, when it curls and rolls into cinnamon sticks. It is graded according to thickness, aroma, and appearance. Cinnamon sticks keep their flavor for a long time. Cinnamon is available both in strips of rolled bark and in powdered form. Like any powdered spice, cinnamon powder loses its flavor in a short period of time and it is best to purchase in smaller quantities. Sore in air tight containers and away from light.
Since Ceylon cinnamon is native in South Asia, the cuisines of Sri Lanka and India make heavy use of it. Cinnamon is also popular in West, South West and Central Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa. It is equally suited for the fiery beef curries of Sri Lanka and the subtle, fragrant rice dishes of North India. In India, cinnamon sticks are often used as whole; they may be removed before serving, but are more frequently kept as a fragrant decoration. Powdered cinnamon is an ingredient in several spice mixtures, like North Indian garam masala, Arabic baharat, Moroccan ras el hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ehiopian berbere. The largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon is Mexico, where it is used in coffee and chocolate. Cinnamon also is used in Mexican mole sauces. In Western cooking cinnamon is mainly used in several kinds of desserts and stewed fruits. Cinnamon bark is an optional ingredient for the classical French mixture quatre épices.
Like most spices, cinnamon is also valued for its medicinal properties. Scientific studies show that one-half teaspoon of cinnamon each day may reduce blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in diabetes patients who are not taking insulin. In ancient Indian herbal medicine ayurveda, cinnamon is used to balance digestion and in the treatment of stomach disorders. Cinnamon oil is used for headaches and joint pain.
Cinnamon is an ancient spice mentioned several times in the Old Testament. In the ancient world cinnamon was precious. In Egypt cinnamon was used for both medicinal purposes as well as for flavoring. It was also used in embalming. In the first century AD, Emperor Nero of Rome burned a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre, signifying the depth of his loss. In medieval Europe it was a staple ingredient, along with ginger, in many recipes. The demand for cinnamon in the West drew both the Portuguese and the Dutch to the shores of Ceylon. Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in the 16th century. The Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 and established a system of cultivation that exists to this day.
Recipe from: Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran
Brown Stew: Potatoes in Spicy Coconut Milk
This spicy potato curry has a sauce that is a delicious combination of a smooth béchamel-textured coconut milk with the intense flavors of the tropical south—ginger, shallots, cloves, cinnamon, and curry leaves. This curry is usually served with the breakfast dishes vellayappam and dosa. Its myriad flavors also mingle well with warm, fluffy rice.
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
4 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai), cut lengthwise into thin strips (less for a mild taste)
6 cups fresh thin coconut milk*
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped or 1 cup thinly chopped shallots
1 one- inch piece of cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
6 dried red cayenne, serrano, or Thai chilies (reduce for a mild taste)
1 cup thick coconut milk**
For seasoning and garnish:
20 to 25 fresh curry leaves
2 tablespoons coconut oil or ghee
Place the potatoes ginger, and green chilies in a saucepan, and pour in the thin coconut milk. Sprinkle with salt, and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are fork tender, approximately eight to ten minutes. Coconut milk should always be simmered, not boiled.
While the potatoes are cooking, heat the teaspoon of oil in a heavy skillet, and fry the onions until they turn golden brown. Add cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, and red chili peppers, and fry for two more minutes. Remove the mixture from the stove, and let it cool. Using a blender, grind the fried spices and onions with just enough water to make a thick, smooth puree. Add the puree to the potatoes cooking in coconut milk, and stir. Simmer over low heat for five minutes. Stir in the thick coconut milk, bring it to a simmer, and remove from the stove. Garnish with the fresh curry leaves and coconut oil or ghee. Keep it covered for ten minutes to allow the flavors of the coconut oil and curry leaves to blend.
Makes 4 to 6 servings if served with another curry, as is traditional.
*Coconut milk is prepared by grating fresh coconut and squeezing the thick coconut milk from it. Then sprinkle a few handfuls of water over the coconut flakes and squeeze out the thin coconut milk.
**For ease of use, you may substitute with canned coconut milk, which is available in most supermarkets. As an easy alternative, I prefer using coconut milk powder. By adjusting the quantity of water added, you can make thick or thin coconut milk using the powder. Coconut milk powder is available in Southeast Asian and Indian grocery stores.
As a last resort, use heavy cream as a substitute for thick coconut milk and whole milk as a substitute for thin coconut milk. However, this last version will definitely lack the flavor of coconut.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her first book,“Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy,” (iUniverse paperback). was published in 2007. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.