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Chinese Spice Cupboard: Cinnamon
Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 9, 10, and 38
It has been said, and correctly so, that the significance of spices and aromas in Chinese thought, written words, in their cupboards, and on their tables is profound. Should you think cinnamon not among them, think about its role in five-spice powder. And keep in mind that it is mentioned in the oldest long poem in Chinese literature, the Li Sao or Lament. That was written by Qu Yuan in the 4th century BCE. In part it says: 'Three kings of old were very pure and perfect and fragrant flowers grew around them. They brought together Chinese pepper and cinnamon.'
We know that about the time of this poem, one prince wove garlands of cinnamon and melilot. A couple of hundred years later during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) another poem reinforces availability of this spice saying: 'Cinnamon trees grow thick in mountain recesses twisting and snaking their branches...one has climbed up by the cinnamon boughs and plans to stay there.' Yet another says: 'Bamboo blankets the peaks, cinnamon trees look down from the cliffs.' And were these poems not enough to convince, keep in mind that the wife of the first Marquis of Dai, who died about 165 BCE, was buried with ginger, a Chinese cinnamon species identified as Cinnamomum chekiangense, and other spices. These necessities for her afterlife were uncovered in Han Tomb No.1, her final resting place.
There are other records of cinnamon in Chinese literature that date back nearly five thousand years. Archeologists suggest that China’s early ancestors knew the flavor of this spice and knew it well. They believe small pieces fell from trees and the aroma intrigued. They also believe some people purposefully put some into their stew pots. Additional records tell us that cinnamon was important in the Zhou Dynasty (1045 - 221 BCE) when it was used along with salt and Sichuan pepper.
While China had more spices to choose from than other regions in the world, there is still a lot of misinformation about their origin, availability, and use. One story says that Marco Polo brought this spice and others, noodles too, back to Europe from China. That is not so; they arrived long before he was born. They came a thousand or more years before when traders, on what we now term the Silk Road, brought them. These folk transferred them and other foods and a variety of non-food goods east to west and visa versa. To learn about these routes, the spices used and traded on them, and the foods that moved back and forth, see the article about The Silk Road in this issue; it is called 'Savoring Diversity of the Silk Road.'
Cinnamon, which the Chinese call gui zhi or ring zhi, traveled on the Silk Road under the name of kinnamon. The first syllable of this Arabic word, kinn, means China or Chinese, the second one, amon, is an Arabic word for 'fragrant.' The Persian word is darsini and it also speaks of this spice’s Chinese origins. It is safe to assume from these words and from written records, that cinnamon came from China.
Shen Nong, China’s first farmer who lived circa 2800 BCE mentions this spice. Other written material mention that it reached the Mediterranean before the 7th century BCE, and that in China and in the Middle East, it was used in soups, stews, and spice mixtures. Cinnamon and other spices have well documented histories in many Asian countries where so many of them grew wild and in profusion. In China, for example, the 4th century philosopher Bao Puzi touts using cinnamon mixed with frog brains. He recommends taking it for seven consecutive years saying that after that one can walk on water and never die.
Columbus searched for cinnamon when he took three-vessels on a voyage that led to the founding of America. He failed in his search for this and other culinary wonders but later searches by other Europeans were more successful. When they found them, they took control of the spice trade. Many foods moved along with aromatic spices from one continent to another. Peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes are examples of a few that went from the America’s to China.
In 1522, Magellan found spices when he navigated the globe and returned with a boatload of them. Others became rich or famous or both when they located them. One was Elihu Yale, who in 1672 was entranced and enticed by travelers tales. He found spices in India, made a bundle of money selling them, and with that cash started a university that bears his name. There were many others, none Chinese, who widened the spice trade. They may not have been well known nor made big bucks, but they were rich in their sale and use of spices and herbs, cinnamon included.
These early traders knew to use the bark, buds, flowers, leaves, rhizomes, and seeds of cinnamon and other aromatic plants. To them and to the Chinese, any aromatic, animal, fruit, vegetable, or mineral was sold and used to flavor foods. They considered them all spices while Westerners referred only to plant materials as spices. To them, cinnamon was one of the most important of them.
They learned from the Chinese to use all parts of the cinnamon tree. They used bark, stems, twigs, and branches and called all of them gui pi. They used the buds and called them gui zu, and they used cinnamon oil and called it gui pi yu. Among all of these components, the bark is the most popular part of any of the varieties of the different cinnamon trees. The most ancient one is Cinnamonum cassia, and it is commonly known as Chinese cinnamon. It is also known as Cinnamomun aromaticum and it is the variety that originally came from China. Another tree, Cinnamonum zeylanicum, which is called Ceylon cinnamon, came from another country. While we still call it Ceylon cinnamon, we now call the country it came from, Sri Lanka.
Cassia forests once were very common in the Hunan Province. Now, they grow in lots of places in China including in Guilin; which actually means 'cassia forest.' Chinese cinnamon trees grow in the provinces of Guangdong, Guanxi, Yunnan, and Fujian. No matter where they grow, their bark is commonly harvested March to July and in eighteen inch long pieces. The Chinese believe that the best cinnamon is cut from fat branches and dried first in the shade and later in the sun.
There are other Cinnamomum and Cassia plants, but not all of them are related. For instance, what is called a 'cinnamon vine' is really a 'Chinese yam.' This is botanically known as Dioscorea opposita. There is a Cassia auriculata which is really a Tanner’s senna; it is not a close relative, either. The leaves of this particular plant are used for tea and its flowers used as a coffee substitute. Cassia fistula, another similarly named plant is commonly called 'golden shower;' it is used as a laxative. And on and on it goes for plants with related names but unrelated taste and usage.
Ceylon cinnamon is the most expensive of the cinnamon barks. It is cut from thin branches, is less astringent, and is lighter in color. It loses its flavor faster than does Chinese cinnamon, and because of that, is less preferred by the Chinese. Cinnamomum cassia, also known as 'Chinese cinnamon' or 'bastard cinnamon' is the one they like best. They prefer it because the coiled pieces of bark, called quills, are both stronger and more flavorful. One spice company, McCormick & Company, Inc. of Hunt Valley in Maryland (zip 21031) says one of the most important ones imported into the United States is Cinnamomum burmannii; it is grown in Indonesia. People do not know that because the United States has no labeling laws requiring indication of which kind of Cinnamomum it is. Most other countries do.
For cooking purposes, ancient Chinese people used Cinnamomum cassia to make a meat jerky from venison and other red meats. Later they added this spice as a component of five-flavor powder. Two articles about this Sichuan spice powder appear in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 3(3) on pages 5 and 6 and in Volume 5(1) on page 15. It is a multi-spice powder that usually does have five ingredients; but it can have more. The five are usually: cassia combined with Sichuan pepper, cloves, fennel, and star anise.
Cassia buds are popular, too. They are called osmanthus. They usually come from Cinnamomum loureiri, popularly known as 'Saigon cinnamon.' It, too, is esteemed in China. Cinnamomum zeylanicum is called 'true cinnamon.' This particular variety is not widely used in the United States. All these evergreen trees are sources of cinnamon bark; and they all coil when cut. All are in the family Lauaceae. The McCormick company says that all cinnamon is characteristically woody, musty, and earthy in flavor and aroma. They call it warming to the taste. They say that the finer its grind, the more quickly it is perceived by your taste buds.
From the traditional Chinese medical perspective, it is considered pungent, sweet, and warm; and a food/medicine that enters heart, lung, and bladder channels. There it disperses cold, protects one’s qi, aids female gynecological problems, unblocks the flow of yang qi in the chest, and warms and helps the flow of blood. Chinese traditional medical doctors have long used it for its strong inhibitory properties. They say it works against bacteria and viruses such as typhus and Asian flu. They think of it not only as pungent or hsin, but also as having important curative powers. They add oil of cassia, which comes from the bark of this evergreen, to flavor many of their medications. The bark and the leaves are used to warm the kidneys and to alleviate pain. They are also used to treat chronic diarrhea, chilled lungs, wheezing, and lumbago.
Because of its strong aroma and curative properties, call it cassia or cinnamon, matters not. What is important is to know that it is burned as incense in Buddhist temples. This use is as ancient as its culinary usage, perhaps even older. It has been found in Neolithic tombs with other offering materials. It is believed that it was used to disguise foul odors, to beautify fine hair, improve fine complexions, and flavor food. Now, elderly people adore it because they say it prolongs their life; Chinese doctors agree with them and frequently prescribe it for this use.
Osmanthus, which is referred to as both 'cinnamon buds' or 'cinnamon blossoms' is really unripe dried fruits. It is not the blossoms of the cassia or laurel tree but rather a different plant. It comes from a cliff-dwelling member of the jasmine family, Osmanthus fragrans. The Chinese use them in cooking and baking and to flavor tea and wines. In markets, one can find them mixed with sugar and sold as cassia jam. Buds from Cinnamomum cassia are called 'malabathrum.' They and the roots and flowers of that tree and the other related laurels are also used medicinally. There is also a cassia seed from Cassia obtusifolia and from Cassia tora that are ripe seeds that benefit the kidneys, sharpen vision, and ease constipation. Early Grand Commandants in Imperial China had a Directorate of Foodstuffs that oversaw the use of cassia flowers, cassia buds and seeds, and cassia bark.
In the kitchen, call it cinnamon or cassia, but do use it, as the Chinese did and do. It is believed a meat preservative and there is no questioning, it is a great flavoring in many duck, chicken, and meat dishes. Here are some that emphasize that:
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