Cinnamon, the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree, is one of the few spices that you can eat whole. With its very hot aromatic taste, cinnamon evokes thoughts of wintry holiday treats, Mexican chocolate and exotic food from India, North Africa and the Middle East.
Cinnamon is native to southeast Asia, and its more than fifty species are grouped into a handful of types that are largely unknown to even the most discerning cooks in America: strong-tasting Vietnam or Saigon cinnamon, Indonesian or Korintje cassia cinnamon [tastes most like what Americans are used to], and delicately flavored Sri Lanka "true" cinnamon.
Cinnamon has been a prized culinary and medicinal spice for over 4000 years. Cinnamon was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 bce, and the Hebrew Bible makes mention of Moses using sweet cinnamon in his "holy anointing oil." Ancient Greeks made precious gift offerings of cinnamon to Apollo; Ancient Egyptians used the spice as a flavor for drinks and for embalming.
Arab spice traders kept the location of cinnamon's source a secret until the 16th Century, and sold the staple ingredient to Venetian traders [who held the European spice monopoly] from Alexandria. Europeans in the Middle Ages used cinnamon to "bridge the flavors" in much of their cooking, in single-cauldron casseroles of meat and fruit and vegetables. This is thought to be the genesis of mince pies of today.
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