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From the spice trail: The story of a cin-ful delight

It isn’t a secret that world trade has opened avenues for us since time immemorial, and on all these many routes that early traders had embarked upon there were discoveries that greatly benefitted the global populous. One such discovery and subsequent trade route was the spice trial, a network of sea routes that connected the East with the West. Quite naturally, owing to the name, the most traded goods were spices, and this brings us to our sail down memory. The one that has given added spice to our lives in baking, desserts, drinks or even savoury dishes. The cin-fully warm and sweet spice that we know as Cinnamon.

Along the route of the spice trail, traders often disembarked at Sri Lanka to debark shavings from the Cinnamomumverum trees which were native to this tiny island. This cigar shaped roll of inner bark found its way to the European continent and subsequently occupied a common place in most household pantries, owing to the deliciously sweet and warm flavours it imparts. The spice finds itself to be called into action often when it comes to Sri Lankan cooking, so much so it is one of our more integral spices, second only to pepper. As is common with most spices, cinnamon too found itself in the physicians’ arsenal where it was used to treat common colds and sore throats, as well as a preservative. The spice is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and to improve gut health. It has even been reported that the ancient Egyptians used the spice as a key ingredient as an embalming agent.

One point that must be made clear is that the real cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, aka the Ceylon cinnamon is often confused with Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), a cousin belonging to the same family of trees. Ceylon cinnamon, which tends to be sweeter and fresher, whereas cassia tends to have a stronger flavour and is found to be used more commonly in Chinese cuisine. Both these varieties are found in easily in stores, either powdered or in the quills they are rolled into.

Now let’s get to the fun part of this post. Where will show you the various ways cinnamon is used in Sri Lankan food. These dishes are where cinnamon is the hero of the dish, whereas it could be used in most dish of your choice should you prefer the flavour of the spice.

We have nice spicy vegetarian dish made with jackfruit called Polos, which are tiny pieces of jackfruit that are mixed with roasted spices. The army of spices that go into this include the usual suspects, mustard, garlic, curry leaves, a delicious pinch of cinnamon, lemongrass all cooked in hot oil. Followed in by the pieces of jackfruit and coconut milk to leave you with a silky and delicious dish that is served with rice or hoppers.

Next is the humble yet flavourful dal or parippu which gets a new lease of life with the cinnamon that’s added to the mix of red lentils cooked in coconut milk, turmeric, fenugreek, red chillies or fresh green chillies. This is a dish that is eaten in every household and is packed with flavour, enjoyed best with rice and a side dish of your choice. One could also try to use the parippu as a dip with freshly fried papodams.

How about one for the sweet tooths, this dish is a glorious play of milk with cinnamon, only this time you might need to get your hands on the leaves of the plant. Known as Aasmi, a traditional deep-fried snack enjoyed on auspicious occasions, made with rich flour, cinnamon leaves, sugar syrup and coconut milk.

There you have it, a little history lesson on cinnamon and its bountiful goodness with a few traditional Sri Lankan dishes that show how the spice is used as the hero of the dish. So, the next time you find yourself looking for an alternative to cinnamon rolls or breads or want to add a zing of spice to your gravies try adding a dash of cinnamon in it. You can also brew a nice cinnamon tea by brewing the cinnamon stick and add a dash of honey before serving. There’s of course, always the warm comfort of mulled wines during the cold wintery months. A whole host of goodness awaits you, should you decide to befriend this humble spice from our dear island.


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