Mar 9, 2014

Ceylon Cinnamon, Part 1

You will be known among strangers / as the cinnamon peeler's wife. - Michael Ondaatje

I have never felt so focused with a knife. As I sat in a large concrete shed beside a Sri Lankan cinnamon peeler I learned to put the tip of a knife beneath the inner bark of a tree and gently glide it along the length of the branch. It was hard not to tear the delicate bark, like the skin of an animal almost, but he seemed to do it so easily, with a gentle grace. I blinked my eyes; I was completely drenched in sweat, both from the humidity but also from my intent focus.

Finally I was able to release a long strip from the branch, and sighing with relief, I inhaled the fragrance that surrounded us - sweet and fresh, warm and exotic, a strange sensation of being both transported to an ancient time and suspended in the present. I held the bark in my hand—it was slightly damp, and I could see tiny beads of the aromatic oil (or cinnamaldehyde) rising to the surface of the pale yellow bark. As it dries, the bark turns coppery colored and it curls inward, each "edge" curling and reaching for the other.

"How long does it take to teach someone to peel cinnamon?" I asked. 

There were four men present — the farmer, the peeler, my driver, and a man who accompanied me to translate the Sinhalese to English.

Suneth, the translator smiled and translated for the farmer. The farmer responded and all the men burst into laughter. 

"Usually a day or two. But for you, maybe a few weeks." 

The country of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was invaded three times by three different countries, for one purpose: cinnamon. 

Knowing this fact while I explored the farms and kitchens of Sri Lanka to learn about this unique spice Cinnamomum zeylancium, gave me a set of strong feelings. I want to move here, I told my boyfriend Mark on the phone late one night. There's something about Sri Lanka that resonates with me— I wrote to my older brother Colin in an e-mail. Like the Portuguese, Dutch and British before me, I too was falling for cinnamon's allure, and I didn't know how one plant could wield so much power.

Aromatic plants sometimes seem to serve a single purpose: to please us. In fact it is just some aspect of the plant we happen to find pleasing. Why do we wear perfume? Why do we sprinkle our cappucino with cinnamon? The olfactory sense has a powerful grip on us, one I am still trying to understand. 

Cinnamon is fascinating because of the compound I mentioned earlier - cinnamaldehyde - which scientists study in both its natural or synthetic form as a powerful insecticide. In reading about this compound in a document published in 2010 by the EPA, I learned that cinnamaldehyde pesticides were registered as early as 1994, using this cinnamon compound as the active ingredient. 

That which gives this plant its beautiful aroma also repels insects. Like thorns on a rosebush, the scent buried one layer deep in the branches of this tree keeps insects and other predators away.  So not only is it a joy to eat fresh cinnamon directly from the branch (so sweet!), but also it's awesome knowing that no pesticides crossed its path. 

I did learn from the farmer about the one major pest that cinnamon farmers cope with. You guessed it: peacocks. Brilliant blue turquoise birds strutting through groves of fragrant cinnamon trees. 

Could Sri Lanka be any more like some kind of strange paradise?

More to come as I start trying out some recipes with this beautiful spice!


  1. Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia referred as same but totally different spices. Commonly available cinnamon is Cassia. Known as true cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon is the expensive and rare cinnamon variety due to its superior qualities and limited production.

    80-90% of world's true cinnamon production come from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a small Asian island located near

    India. Under British rule, the island was known as Ceylon from 1815-1972. Accordingly, cinnamon comes from Ceylon has spread in the world as 'Ceylon cinnamon'.

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