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True Cinnamon

What is It?

I refer to this as true Cinnamon (Dalchini) to distinguish it from similar products. It is the bark of an evergreen tree of the laurel family which is native to Sri Lanka. Indeed the botanical name (cinnamomum zeylanicum) indicates its origins in Ceylon, the old name for Sri Lanka - it is also sometimes called cinnamomum verum (literally meaning true cinnamon).

The reason for this is that it is remarkably similar to other species, in particular cassia and Indonesian cinnamon which are indeed very alike but taste different and are chemically different as well. The Sri Lankan variety is quite light in colour and uses only the inner, smooth bark; cassia is darker, slightly reddish and often comes with the outer, rough bark as well. Cassia has a stronger, harsher flavour. In some countries you are not always buying what you think you are buying.

In the wild the trees can grow up to 50 feet (15 metres) but in cultivation the never grow above about 10 feet (3 metres). The trees are grown for 2 years and then they are chopped down close to the ground. New shoots form from the stump, which are then harvested every year (this is called coppicing).


Although a native of Sri Lanka it was known to be in Egypt at least 4000 years ago; it is known to have been used by the Egyptians as part of the embalming process. It is also mentioned in Chinese writings dating back to 2800 BC, so it it clearly a very old spice.

It is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, Moses was commanded by God (apparently) to use both this and cassia as anointing oils and it is mentioned in Proverbs and in other books.

It was also known to the Greeks and Romans; the Romans burned it during funerals; Nero is said to have burned a year's supply at his wife's funeral in 65 AD.

Like a lot of spices it was traded by the Arabs who, to keep the price high, deliberately kept its source a secret, inventing stories that it was harvested by giant birds in an unknown land to make their nests (people believed this?) or that it was trawled up in nets at the edge of the world.

When the Portuguese went east in the 15th century, they took control of much of the spice trade and true cinnamon, as well as cassia and other spices, were introduced to Europe. The Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch and then by the English and by the early 19th century production had spread to other areas and it is now a common spice.


The early uses of cinnamon were both to preserve meat but also to disguise tainted meat, it contains phenols which kill the bacteria which cause meat to go off, and it also has a strong sweetish smell. To some extent it serves a similar purpose in Indian food, it is used as part of the marinade in vindaloo and, in conjunction with the other spices, this will preserve meat in hot climates.

In Britain both true cinnamon and cassia have been known for many centuries but its main use has been in a sweet context; to sweeten cakes, buns and pastries although it was also used to bond sweet and savoury tastes (like mince pies).

In Indian food it is used in meat and rice dishes, it is a common ingredient in garam masala and is used in some curry powders. I use it sometimes in aromatic rice.

I always buy sticks rather than the powdered form as these last much longer; the powder will last a maximum of 6 months before it becomes pretty useless. You need to look at the packet and be sure that you are buying true cinnamon and not cassia. Also you should never use powder when a recipe calls for sticks to be used whole. If the sticks are to be ground then they should be roasted lightly before grinding to release the oils.


Although their tastes can be different, true cinnamon and cassia have similar nutritional values; Vitamin K, which helps blood clotting, and Calcium, Iron and Manganese together with a few other vitamins and minerals in less significant amounts. It has dietary fibre and lots of amino acids - nearly all the important ones in fact. It is a natural antiseptic, it calms the stomach and is a digestive

It has long been known in Chinese traditional medicine as well as the Greek and Roman quacks. It was proscribed variously for coughs, dyspepsia, sore throats, indigestion and even rheumatism and other inflammations.

More recent studies (proper scientific ones) have shown that cinnamon helps with type II diabetes. The active ingredient has been extracted and shown to stimulate the insulin response which is diminished in this type of diabetes.

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