Cinnamon is more than a perfect holiday spice. Once a prized gift, it was reportedly worth 15 times more in value than silver! Here are ten fun facts that prove cinnamon’s history is as rich as its flavor.
1. Cinnamon’s broad range of uses made it invaluable in Ancient Egypt. It was used to preserve meat, treat sore throats, and was even used as a perfume in the embalming process.
2. Cinnamon was considered an ancient merchant’s best-kept secret. To monopolize the cinnamon trade, they came up with a variety of stories about its source.
The 5th-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, recalled how people left large pieces of ox meat under birds’ nests, believing that large birds carried cinnamon sticks from unreachable mountain tops!
3. Zakaria al-Qazwini – a Persian author and physician of Arab descent – in his work “آثار البلاد و أخبار العباد” (“Monument of Places and History of God’s Bondsmen”) from c. 1270 identifies cinnamon as native to Sri Lanka.
4. Later in the 16th century, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Pizarro set out to the Amazon hoping to find “el país de la canela” or “the cinnamon country” after Christopher Columbus falsely claimed that he found cinnamon in the “New World”.
5. The Dutch, through their colonization of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), monopolized the cinnamon trade for over 200 years!
6. Two types of cinnamon that we know, love and commonly use today are cassia cinnamon and cinnamomum verum. You probably use the former for your holiday sweets. It is produced in Vietnam, China and Indonesia – and is the affordable variant. The latter is more of a splurge! It is still primarily sourced from Sri Lanka and is found in South Asian, Central and South American cuisines. It has a milder, sweeter flavor – perfect for a rich cup of hot chocolate on a winter day!
7. The English word “cinnamon” is derived from the Ancient Greek kinnámōmon (κιννάμωμον), via Latin and medieval French. The Ancient Greek term itself is borrowed from a Phoenician word, thought to be related to the Hebrew term qinnāmōn (קינמון).
8. Several European languages use some derivation of the Latin “canna”, meaning “tube”, for cinnamon, for example French “cannelle” and Spanish “canela”. This refers to the curled shape of the spice.
9. Interestingly, since the source of cinnamon was kept secret by early merchants, some falsely believed the spice to be native to China. This explains why some languages refer to cinnamon as a Chinese export, for example darcheen (دارچین) in Persian translates literally to “Chinese tree”! The word for cinnamon in Turkish “tarçın”, and in Kurdish “darçîn”, are derived from Persian, too.
10. Cinnamon is a staple in Arab and Persian cuisines. It is an element in the Persian spice blend called Advieh (ادویه), used in a delicious Lebanese couscous dish called Moghrabieh (مغربية) which literally translates to “a dish from the Maghreb”, and several other dishes!
Fascinated by the etymology and culture surrounding cinnamon? ? Or know someone who would be? Dive deeper into it with NaTakallam’s Language Sessions or give the Gift of Conversation this holiday season to loved ones. Available in Arabic, Armenian, English, French, Kurdish, Persian, and Spanish.