Cinnamon is often thought of as a single spice, but in fact, there are multiple varieties with one being most common in Chinese cooking. We explain what Chinese cinnamon is and how it’s used.
What is Chinese Cinnamon
Cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of several evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. The young branches of evergreens trees are selectively pruned after 2 to 3 years of growth and the inner bark is striped and laid in the sun to dry. Branches regrow and the trees can keep producing cinnamon for up to 50 years.
There are four types of cinnamon most commonly sold around the globe for culinary uses: Cassia, Ceylon, Saigon, and Korintje. Two species are most commonly sold as cinnamon in the U.S., Ceylon and Cassia, and will be discussed here.
Cassia is known as Chinese cinnamon (gui pi 桂皮 or ròu guì 肉桂) and is what we use here on Mala Eats. Cassia is also the most prevalent form of cinnamon sold in the North American market (although most Cassia comes to the U.S. from Indonesia). Chinese cinnamon (Cassia) comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum aromaticum tree. This tree is native to China, Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh.
History of Cinnamon
Cinnamon was one of the first spices used in ancient civilizations. As far back as Egyptian times most of the cinnamon was produced in China. Even 2,000 years ago there are stories of kingdoms paying tribute in cassia to the Chinese emperor. The Old Testament discuses preparing an anointing oil using cassia. Historically cinnamon was also used to preserve food.
Cinnamon imbues a warm, spicy sweetness to dishes and even has hints of fruity, floral, and cloves like flavors. The oil cinnamaldehyde gives cinnamon it flavor and aroma, and different varieties have different concentrations of this oil, explaining the differences in taste.
Cassia vs. Ceylon Cinnamon
Cassia has a bolder flavor and tends to be a little thicker and rougher in texture. Ceylon comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree and is native to India. Ceylon’s flavor is milder and more delicate. Cassia has a higher amount of cinnamaldehyde which explains its bolder flavor.
In the U.S., both Cassia and Ceylon can legally be referred to as Cinnamon, but in Europe only Ceylon can be called cinnamon and Cassia must be labeled as Cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is sometimes called “true” cinnamon, but this is not an accurate statement since all varieties come from the Cinnamomum species.
Uses in Chinese Cooking
People who’ve grown up cooking mostly “Western” style dishes may be more familiar using cinnamon to make sweet dishes, such as cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, cinnamon toast, and candied pecans, etc. In China, cinnamon is more likely to be found in savory dishes.
Cinnamon is often used in stewed and braised meat dishes in Chinese cooking to make them more aromatic and to remove some of the oiliness from the meat. Cassia is also one of the important ingredients in Chinese Five Spice. We use Chinese cinnamon in our tea eggs and sometimes add a small piece when making chili oil.
Use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
According to Healthline, cinnamon is loaded with antioxidants and has many anti-inflammatory properties and recent studies have shown that it can help lower blood sugar.
Cinnamon has been used in Chinese medicine dating back to at least 2500 BC. In traditional Chinese Medicine, cinnamon is in the category of herbs that warm the interior and expel the cold.
It is used to increase the circulation to the lungs and joints and to help boost the metabolism of fats and sugars. It is thought to benefit the liver, kidneys, and spleen. Cinnamon is also used to treat stomach disorders, such as nausea and bloating, menstrual symptoms, and it is used as an aphrodisiac.
Most Chinese markets sell Cassia. If you do not have access to a local Chinese market, you can buy it online from The Mala Market. We buy our Cassia from The Mala Market because we know they sell high quality authentic Chinese ingredients. You can also find it on Amazon, but it is difficult to know exactly which type of cinnamon you are getting.
Like other dry spices, store Cassia in a cool dry place in an airtight container. Use by the expiration date on the package.
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