Cinnamon and Cassia

by Mindy Yang

Cinnamon and cassia come from the bark of trees or bushes belonging to the laurel family. These are evergreen, and the trees can grow to a height of 18 m (60 ft), more commonly 6 – 9 m (20 – 30 ft). The leaves are shiny and ovoid, and the yellow cluster flowers are tiny, as are the fruit. The whole tree – flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and bark – exudes a spicy aroma.

Cassia is thought to have originated in Burma or China (thus its name in many countries, cane/le de Chine, for example). Cinnamon was native to Ceylon, but is now cultivated in other tropical countries such as India, the Seychelles and Mauritius.
This most ancient of spices – probably cassia, but cinnamon and cassia have long been historically confused – was mentioned in the treatise of the Emperor Shen Nung (2700BC) under the name of ‘kwei’, and in the Pen T’Sao (the first compendium of materia medica) under the name’ten-chu-kwei’ meaning’ cinnamon of India’. Very few prescriptions seem to have been issued in China without the inclusion of the spice, and it was registered as a tranquillizer, tonic, stomachic, and as being good for depression and a weak heart. The spice is mentioned in the Bible under the name of ‘quesiah’. In Exodus, God told Moses to take myrrh, cinnamon, olive oil and bulrushes with him from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians were known to have used it to keep epidemics at bay, and in embalming.

The Arab traders supplied the spice to the Greeks and Romans, trying to keep its origins secret, but the quest for the coveted cinnamon was pursued so enthusiastically that it was the principal incentive of the Portuguese in discovering the route around the Cape to India and Ceylon in the sixteenth century. The Dutch, who took possession of Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – in the mid-seventeenth century, monopolized the cinnamon trade for some 150 years, but it was also they who began its systematic cultivation (as late as 1770). Thereafter, the spice became more widely available, and its use more affordable, in the West.

Essential Oil

When the trees are six to eight years old, the bark is removed in long strips and left to dry in the hot sun. These strips roll up into tubes, the ‘quills’ familiar as the culinary spice. An inner corky layer is stripped for cinnamon, but is left in place with cassia, which is redder in color, often chipped, and more coarsely pungent than cinnamon. To give the bark time to grow again, it is removed about every two years, and it is said that a good tree can produce for almost 200 years.

The essential oil of cinnamon is obtained by steam distillation of the bark and leaves; that of cassia – which is not easy to find – from the leaves, barks and young twigs. The consistency of cassia is thicker, and it is less subtle and aromatic. The principal constituents: Cinnamon – cinnamic aldehyde (60-65 per cent), caryophyllene, cymene, eugenol, linalool, methylamine ketone which gives the characteristic aroma, phellandrene, pinene and many others. Cassia contains a higher proportion of cinnamic aldehyde, as much as 80 – 85 per cent.

Dangers: The oils should never be self-administered, but always used by a reputable practitioner. They can be toxic for many people, and they always have to be well diluted in a base oil and used in combination with other essential oils. If used pure in a bath or on the skin, they could cause terrible blisters and burns. The high eugenol content of cinnamon oil means it could corrode metal. Both cinnamon oil and cassia oil are restricted on the list issued by IFRA.

USES
  • The properties are antiseptic, digestive and anti-rheumatic. As cinnamon leaves contain such a high proportion of phenols (5 – 10 per cent eugenol), it has been classified as one of the strongest antiseptics and antivirals in nature.
  • One source states that the essential oil destroyed a culture of the typhoid bacillus in less than half an hour. Such strength should, understandably, be used only by practitioners.
  • For safety, I recommend that it is used at home in bark or ground form only, when it can help the symptoms of flu or colds, and act as a stimulant for the digestive system.
  • A sugary, cinnamon-scented drink – milk or brandy and milk, for instance – can ease a cough or sore throat.

CINNAMON CURE-ALL

  • 60 g (2 oz) cinnamon sticks
  • 30 g (1 oz) vanilla pods
  • 30 g (1 oz) ginseng
  • 20 g (3/4 oz) rhubarb, chopped
  • 7.5 g (1/4 oz) root ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 liter (1 ¾ pints) Malaga wine

Mix the ingredients together and leave to rest in the dark for four weeks, shaking the bottle from time to time. Drink one small liqueur glass per day before meals as a preventative when ‘flu is around, as a pick-me-up after a bad illness or for a sluggish digestive system. A little, one to two liqueur glasses, can also be added to puddings such as compote of fruits, fruit salads and creme caramel. 

  • Cinnamon, ground or sticks, can be used in mouthwashes, and simply chewing a stick is an instant breath freshener. 
In cookery
  • Cinnamon and cassia for culinary use can be bought in stick or chip form; cinnamon can also be bought ground (it is difficult to grind at home), but buy sparingly, as the flavor quickly goes.
  • In the West, ground cinnamon is generally used in desserts, cakes, pastries and biscuits; the sticks can give their flavor to syrups, creams and aromatic or mulled wines.
  • Simply using cinnamon as a swizzle stick for hot drinks like cocoa or chocolate can significantly flavor and benefit.
  • Elsewhere, cinnamon and cassia, particularly the latter, are used in Arab and Indian meat dishes: because of the phenol content, this serves the practical purpose of destroying or discouraging the bacteria responsible for putrefaction.
  • Dried cassia leaves, which are as aromatic as the bark, are much used in India. Cassia buds, which are clove-like, are also used in meat dishes.
  • Cassia is, not surprisingly, one of the spices in the famous Chinese five-spice mixture, and cinnamon is found in many garam masalas.
  • Cinnamon or cassia bark was often burned as incense in the past, and a fat obtained from the fruit was once used to make church candles. 
  • The powerful fragrance of either spice can be used in potpourris, in herb pillows and herb bags to keep moths away.
  • Cinnamon is also one of the ingredients of Carmelite water.
  • Pliny used cinnamon in a perfume recipe for men in his Natural History, and many sources recommend it as a spice with which to perfume linen – but beware, the Book of Proverbs warns against the woman who perfumes her bed with enticements such as these!
  • Cinnamon is now popular in many soaps and men’s cosmetic preparations.


Mindy Yang
Mindy Yang

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