Spice. As a child, I thought that's what cinnamon was. And not just a spice, but spice itself. The exotic culinary treasure that drove conquests, expeditions and even wars. Spice! With my very first bite of cinnamon toast, a visceral, almost overpowering taste -- that ancient, dark, nutty tang -- swept me into fantasy.
It was so different from any other flavor I'd experienced that I couldn't imagine another food even belonging in the same category. When my mother was brave enough to finally let me make my own breakfast, I shook the mahogany-brown powder so thick on the bread that the butter couldn't absorb it all. A melty pool of sensuality. I devoured it.
My early passion for the dried and powdered inner bark of the evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum rarely strayed, though, from the traditional uses: mulled cider, pumpkin pie and my beloved breakfast toasts.
But that's changed -- as it has for many Americans. As we continue in our never-ending search for new tastes, cinnamon is finding its way into savory dishes of all kinds. The spice's distinctive notes blend harmoniously with almost every kind of meat and fish, and perk up grains and vegetables in ways that can truly surprise your palate.
The transformative genius of cinnamon has fascinated cooks around the world and throughout history.
The Chinese extolled the virtues of cinnamon -- or cassia (a close cousin), to be exact -- as early as 2,800 B.C., and it was used in incense (and as an essential ingredient in mummifying royal corpses) by the Egyptians of the second century B.C. Only a couple of centuries later, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder estimated that a pound of cinnamon was worth more than 15 times the equivalent weight in silver.
Western use skyrocketed beginning in the 16th century, after a Portuguese explorer stumbled upon the burgeoning spice trade of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). For the next couple of centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English all took turns booting the others out of Ceylon for the privilege of controlling the rich Ceylonese plantations.
Meanwhile, the former colonizers had smuggled out cinnamon plants and discovered that they took well to similar climes, such as those found in Sumatra, Java and Mauritius. Bottom line: Prices plummeted, and the spice became an affordable staple of the European kitchen.
Technically, what we Americans buy in the supermarket, whether powdered or in sticks, is not "true" cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum). It's cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), dubbed "false" cinnamon by the French.
The difference between the two is so slight they might have been separated at birth, and almost were, produced from similar kinds of trees. The flavor of cassia is somewhat stronger and coarser, but you have to pay close attention to notice.
In Mexico, the milder taste of true cinnamon (called canela) is preferred -- apparently in France, too -- but for the rest of the world, the spice siblings have been so mixed and substituted over the last 4,000 years that in the United States, they're considered commercially interchangeable.
Much of the American supply today comes from Sumatra, and one way to realize how much this historically haughty spice has been undervalued within our shores is to consider the difficult, labor-intensive effort required to get it here.
Each rainy season (from December to March), workers in Sumatra's west-central highlands toil for months to cut and peel the bark from thin shoots at the center of the small, bushy cassia trees. New shoots then grow on the stumps, and their bark is in turn harvested, improving in quality with each stripping.
Periodically, the peelings are rolled into cylinders, dried and taken down to Padang or other coastal cities for export. A typical tenant farmer can produce about 1 ton of processed bark from 3,000 trees in a year.
That's a lot of work just to accessorize toast and sticky buns. But with recipes like these, my childhood memories don't have to be limitations.
With Mediterranean spaghetti, sweet spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg balance the pungent feta and Parmesan cheeses to give a bold, intriguing flavor to a familiar meat-and-pasta dish.
Cinnamon-Apricot Glazed Salmon
Makes 4 servings (serving size: 5 ounces fish and about 2 tablespoons sauce)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon minced, peeled fresh ginger
2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
1 (12-ounce) can apricot nectar
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets (about 1 inch thick)
Combine the first 4 ingredients in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer mixture until reduced to 3/4 cup (about 30 minutes). Strain the apricot mixture through a sieve over a bowl, and discard solids.
Preheat broiler. Place salmon fillets on a broiler pan lined with foil; broil 5 minutes. Brush fish with 1/4 cup apricot mixture. Broil for 3 minutes or until lightly browned and fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Serve the fish with the remaining apricot mixture.