Cinnamon (/ˈsɪnəmən/ sin-ə-mən) is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. Cinnamon is used in both sweet and savoury foods. The term “cinnamon” also refers to its mid-brown colour.
Cinnamomum verum is sometimes considered to be “true cinnamon“, but most cinnamon in international commerce is derived from related species, also referred to as “cassia” to distinguish them from “true cinnamon”.
Cinnamon is the name for perhaps a dozen species of trees and the commercial spice products that some of them produce. All are members of the genus Cinnamomum in the family Lauraceae. Only a few Cinnamomum species are grown commercially for spice.
The English word “cinnamon”, attested in English since the 15th century, derives from the Greek κιννάμωμον kinnámōmon (later kínnamon), via Latin and medieval French intermediate forms. The Greek was borrowed from a Phoenician word, which was similar to the related Hebrew qinnamon.
The name “cassia”, first recorded in English around AD 1000, was borrowed via Latin and ultimately derives from Hebrew q’tsīʿāh, a form of the verb qātsaʿ, “to strip off bark”.
Early Modern English also used the names canel and canella, similar to the current names of cinnamon in several other European languages, which are derived from the Latin word cannella, a diminutive of canna, “tube”, from the way the bark curls up as it dries.
Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BCE, but those who report it had come from China confuse it with cassia. Cinnamon was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and even for a god; a fine inscription records the gift of cinnamon and cassia to the temple of Apollo at Miletus. Though its source was kept mysterious in the Mediterranean world for centuries by the middlemen who handled the spice trade, to protect their monopoly as suppliers, cinnamon is native to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh , and Burma.
The first Greek reference to kasia is found in a poem by Sappho in the seventh century BCE. According to Herodotus, both cinnamon and cassia grew in Arabia, together with incense, myrrh, and ladanum, and were guarded by winged serpents. The phoenix was reputed to build its nest from cinnamon and cassia. Herodotus mentions other writers who believed the source of cassia was the home of Dionysos, located somewhere east or south of Greece.
Egyptian recipes for kyphi, an aromatic used for burning, included cinnamon and cassia from Hellenistic times onward. The gifts of Hellenistic rulers to temples sometimes included cassia and cinnamon, as well as incense, myrrh, and Indian incense (kostos), so one might conclude that the Greeks used it for similar purposes.
According to Pliny, a Roman pound (327 grams (11.5 oz)) of cassia, cinnamon, or serichatum cost up to 300 denarii, the wage of ten months’ labour. Diocletian‘s Edict on Maximum Prices from 301 AD gives a price of 125 denarii for a pound of cassia, while an agricultural labourer earned 25 denarii per day. Cinnamon was too expensive to be commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome, but the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply at the funeral for his wife Poppaea Sabina in AD 65.
Malabathrum leaves (folia) were used in cooking and for distilling an oil used in a caraway sauce for oysters by the Roman gourmet Gaius Gavius Apicius. Malabathrum is among the spices that, according to Apicius, any good kitchen should contain.
Through the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the Western world. From reading Latin writers who quoted Herodotus, Europeans had learned that cinnamon came up the Red Sea to the trading ports of Egypt, but where it came from was less than clear. When the Sieur de Joinville accompanied his king to Egypt on crusade in 1248, he reported – and believed – what he had been told: that cinnamon was fished up in nets at the source of the Nile out at the edge of the world (i.e., Ethiopia). Marco Polo avoided precision on the topic. Herodotus and other authors named Arabia as the source of cinnamon: they recounted that giant cinnamon birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests, and that the Arabs employed a trick to obtain the sticks. Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century that traders had made this up to charge more, but the story remained current in Byzantium as late as 1310.
The first mention that the spice grew in Sri Lanka was in Zakariya al-Qazwini’s Athar al-bilad wa-akhbar al-‘ibad (“Monument of Places and History of God’s Bondsmen”) about 1270. This was followed shortly thereafter by John of Montecorvino in a letter of about 1292.
Indonesian rafts transported cinnamon directly from the Moluccas to East Africa (see also Rhapta), where local traders then carried it north to Alexandria in Egypt. Venetian traders from Italy held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe, distributing cinnamon from Alexandria. The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers, such as the Mamluk sultans and the Ottoman Empire, was one of many factors that led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.
Dutch traders established a trading post in 1638, took control of the manufactories by 1640, and expelled the remaining Portuguese by 1658. “The shores of the island are full of it,” a Dutch captain reported, “and it is the best in all the Orient. When one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.” :15 The Dutch East India Company continued to overhaul the methods of harvesting in the wild and eventually began to cultivate its own trees.
During the 1500s, Ferdinand Magellan was searching for spices on behalf of Spain, and in the Philippines found Cinnamomum mindanaense which was closely related to C. zeylanicum, the cinnamon found in Sri Lanka. This cinnamon eventually competed with Sri Lankan cinnamon, which was controlled by the Portuguese.
In 1767, Lord Brown of the British East India Company established Anjarakkandy Cinnamon Estate near Anjarakkandy in Cannanore (now Kannur) district of Kerala, and this estate became Asia’s largest cinnamon estate. The British took control of Ceylon from the Dutch in 1796.