In my grandparents’ farm in Bgy. Sugod there was a huge laurel tree that grew right outside Tya Lita’s kitchen. Tya Lita was my grandparents’ tenant and as luck would have it, Peter happens to be one of her nephews.
Laurel – or bay leaves – are my favorite spice. And the discovery that my grandparents had them in their own property woke up Marco Polo urges in me. Peter called the tree canela, though. It was only when I posted the find on Facebook that a friend alerted me to my own ignorance – that in fact, bay leaves do not grow on cinnamon. I had wrongly assumed that the spice packet we buy from wet markets (locally called recado), are harvested from the same tree – the laurel.
Nonetheless, I had Peter extract some bark from the tree. He came back with a year’s supply. He also brought me seedlings that we immediately propagated. He must have planted 15 seedlings, only four survived. That was four years ago. Today, those cinnamon trees are growing nicely. One of them has shot up twice my height, and the rest are a little slower in growth. But they are well on their way to treedom.
A cousin, Faith Angeli, who bakes cakes and pastries, messaged one day to say she couldn’t find cinnamon powder locally. For some reason, the groceries ran out of it. I gave her a huge chunk of bark but I had no idea how she was grinding it into powder seeing that it had hardened. I also gave her three pieces of cinnamon sticks that someone gave me from Vietnam. A few days later she got back to me and asked which of the cinnamon was ours. I said the big ones. She had successfully ground them into powder, but noticed that there was a difference in color and taste. The sticks had a more delicate, refined and less pungent taste.
Cinnamon is made from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum tree. Its unique properties come from its essential oils, such as cinnamaldehyde.
Curious to find out the genealogy of our cinnamon, I read that it is more likely to be related to the species that grows in Cebu and called Cebu cinnamon (Cinnamomum cebuense). Our cinnamon trees grow taller, have a single trunk, while judging from photos, Ceylon cinnamon are smaller and have multiple branches sticking out from its main trunk. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), is the real deal. And all other cinnamon trees are called, sadly, fakes. That includes, even sadder, our own.
Sri Lanka exported US$159.1 million of cinnamon in 2016; China (presumably Cassia and not even considered premium), US$91.5 million. We’re nowhere near these countries (figures from the Forest Products Research and Development Institute).
Cebu cinnamon, kalingag, resembles the Chinese cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum cassia), which, more likely, is the source of the ground cinnamon that you get in little bottles for your breads and cakes and even pancakes. Ceylon cinnamon powder is much harder to source out, since it is more expensive. But apparently, Ceylon cinnamon’s superiority is not so much in taste but in medicinal value. While both contain a compound called coumarin, Chinese cinnamon has higher amounts, which in large doses could be harmful to your kidneys and liver.
Perhaps it is for its pungency that the more common cinnamon is widely used in South East Asia in such dishes like bak kut teh, the national soup of Malaysia, lamb biryani of India, and Massaman curry of Thailand. And because it is more delicate and refined, the Ceylon cinnamon is better for cakes and pastries.
Cinnamon, like cardamom and star anise, is among those spices that drove men to cross continents, fight wars, and discover new frontiers.
Despite its lesser stature in the hierarchy of cinnamon, our very own trees are still considered an endangered species – and therefore valuable.
Header photo: Bak Kuh Teh by Tastingtable.com