Cinnamon and cassia

Other Names: Cinnamon: Canela (Portuguese, Spanish); canella (French); cannella (Italian); darchini (Hindi); echter zimt (German); jou kwei (Chinese); kanela (Greek); kayu manis (Indonesian); kerefa (Amharic); koritsa (Russian); mdalasini (Swahili); op cheuy (Thai); qinamon (Hebrew); que Srilanca (Vietnamese); qurfah (Arabic); shinamon (Japanese); soft-stick cinnamon; true cinnamon; tsimring (Yiddish). Cassia: Bastard cinnamon; canela de la China or casia (Spanish); cannella della Cina or cassia (Italian); canelle de Chine or casse (French); cássia-aromática (Portuguese); darasini (Arabic); kaeng (Thai); kassie (German); kasia (Greek); kayu manis cina (Indonesian); korichnoje derevo (Russian); kwei (Chinese); qassia (Hebrew); que don (Vietnamese); shinamonkassia (Japanese). Vietnamese cinnamon: Baker’s cinnamon; Saigon cassia or cinnamon.

General Description: Cinnamon is the sweetly scented inner bark of the cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), which is related to the bay laurel. Cinnamon bark is manually rolled into light reddish brown coils, called quills, that have a warm and spicy yet sweet and delicate flavor. Beloved worldwide, cinnamon is one of the oldest spices in the world. The ancients used it to flavor wine, much as it’s used now for mulled wine or sangria.

Cinnamon is used heavily in the fiery curries of Sri Lanka and in biriyanis, rice dishes of northern India’s Moghul cuisine. Medieval habits of seasoning savory foods with cinnamon persist in the cured meats and sausages of Spain and the b’stillas and tagines of Morocco. In Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, lamb is always seasoned with cinnamon. In France, cinnamon appears in homey sweets like apple tarts and rice pudding. In Mexico, cinnamon flavors chocolate and mole sauces. In India, cinnamon is used whole: The bark pieces are fried in hot oil until they unroll, releasing their fragrance; the fried cinnamon is generally used as a fragrant garnish. Powdered cinnamon goes into many spice mixes.

Cassia (C. aromaticum_), or Chinese cinnamon, is similar in flavor to true cinnamon, though thicker and tougher, with a dark brown, rough outer surface. Cassia is reddish brown when powdered, with a pronounced, slightly bitter aroma. Chunks of cassia bark are thick but brittle, and they’re often sold in small pieces or irregular shapes. Much “cinnamon” used in the United States is actually cassia, but in Europe, cassia is generally found only in Chinese markets. Cassia is preferred in Asia and goes into Hunan “red cooking” or “red braising” (_hongshao), wherein food is cooked in a spiced broth or master sauce.

Vietnamese cinnamon (C. loureirii_) looks similar to cassia, but it is smaller and thinner. Highly esteemed in China and Japan, the bark is high in essential oil and has a sweet, rich, pungent flavor. The unripe fruits are dried and sold as “cassia buds.” Indonesian cinnamon (_C. burmannii) is much thicker than Vietnamese cinnamon and not as breakable. The quills are reddish brown outside, but the inner side of the bark is a much darker grayish brown. It’s cultivated in Java and Sumatra and is much used in the Netherlands.

Cinnamon buds, which resemble cloves, are the unripe fruits of the cinnamon tree. They have a mild, pure, sweet flavor, but must be finely ground to release their fragrance. The buds are used in China (where they come from the cassia tree) and India.

The wood of the related camphor tree (C. camphora) is used for smoking foods, especially duck, in Chinese cuisine. It’s also the source of an essential oil that flavors bitters, candy, and baked goods. In India, very small quantities of crystallized camphor resin, called kacha karpoor, are added to milk puddings and sweets.

Purchase and Avoid: Paler true cinnamon is of better quality because it comes from young cultivated shoots, resulting in quills that are thin and delicately flavored. Ground cinnamon quickly loses its subtle nuances of aroma. For whole cassia, look for reddish brown rather than dark brown quills. Note that in the United States and France, cinnamon refers to both cinnamon and cassia; in England and Australia it’s illegal to sell “cinnamon” that’s actually cassia.


  • Soft-stick cinnamon is soft enough to crumble with your hands and then grind.
  • To grind cassia, first crush up several quills with a meat mallet or hammer, then grind the crushed pieces to a rough powder in a coffee grinder, in a blender, or with a mortar and pestle.

Note: Add powdered cinnamon shortly before the end of the cooking time, as it becomes slightly bitter with longer cooking.

Serving Suggestions: Bake acorn or butternut squash with crushed cinnamon stick. Toss steamed green beans and sliced oranges in a dressing of cider vinegar, whole-grain mustard, honey, cinnamon, and thyme. Crush cassia or cinnamon sticks, steep in scalded milk overnight, then strain and use the milk to make ice cream, custards, and pastry cream.

Food Affinities: Apple, beef, black pepper, brandy, brown sugar, cardamom, carrot, cherry, chicken, chocolate, duck, ginger, honey, lamb, nutmeg, peach, pork, saffron, winter squash, yam.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com