Cardamom Pods and Seeds
Black Poppy Seeds, actually slate blue in color
closeup of Black Poppy Seeds,
about 1 mm. in size, kidney shaped
Black Poppy Seed, ground
White Poppy Seeds, actually pale tan in color
What we commonly know in the U.S. as “cinnamon” is actually Cassia (cinnamomum aromaticum). It is a relative of true cinnamon, but not the real thing. The rest of the world uses true cinnamon (cinnamomum verum), in their cooking or baking, yet here we use something completely different.
As background, I first found out how much difference there was between these two spices when I lived in Guatemala. The cinnamon there tasted very different from what I knew growing up in Ohio; making things like an apple pie or apple crisp just tasted different. They were very good, but didn’t taste like what had known. I chalked it up to differences in quality of product, or maybe my baking skill was inadequate. Any typical Guatemalan foods I ate or made with cinnamon tasted just fine of course, with nothing to compare.
It wasn’t until much later, when once again living in the U.S., I tried making a Guatemalan dish, Platanos en Mole (Plantains in Mole Sauce), using the cassia available. The dish just tasted wrong. I couldn’t understand it. I had made this dish many times in Guatemala. I had a lot more cooking and baking skill by this time. What was wrong? I started checking into spices in general, with an eye to those things I knew were different, and discovered that we in the U.S. are being marketed a completely different product.
Cassia cinnamon is a very good spice. I do not for a second propose we do away with it! What would our apple pies taste like without it? It is a wonderful spice, worthy of the space in our cupboards. However, I propose that true cinnamon have an equal place.
Cinnamon of either kind is the bark of the tree. The bark is peeled off and dried, curling into what are known as “quills” or ground into powder. This is where the similarity ends. Cassia quills are very thick curls, strong and sometimes even hard to break. It has a stronger taste, warmer and more potent. There is some very good quality cassia to be found these days, such as “Korintje AA”. A lovely spice to perk up anything you commonly make with “cinnamon” here.
For my cooking classes I always take both types of cinnamon: a high quality cassia quill and ground Korintje AA cassia, alongside true cinnamon quills and ground cinnamon. True cinnamon quills are curled and layered together in a tight roll, are very thin and easily crushed. The flavor is lighter and more delicate, with a somewhat lemony quality. I set the quills side by side and demonstrate the differences, first breaking a cassia quill, with the ensuing loud “snap” when it breaks. Then I show the cinnamon quill, layered together, and how very easily it breaks and crumbles. With the ground version of each side by side, I ask the class members to smell the two; first the cassia that is the most familiar, and then the cinnamon. The startled reactions when they realize exactly how big a difference exists between these two spices, is quite rewarding.
True cinnamon is found in most any Mexican grocery section these days. Good quality spice shops carry excellent quality cinnamon and also excellent quality cassia. If you want to make any ethnic food from anywhere else in the world, or just become familiar with a new flavor – go for true cinnamon. It’s worth the effort.
Star Anise; whole, broken, seed
Left:Tellicherry Middle: Malabar Right: Tellicherry, Malabar and grocery black pepper
Note the rightmost column from the grocery has multiple sizes of peppercorn.
Left: Sarawak White Middle: Regular White Peppercorns Right: comparison
Sarawak White are larger and cleaner. Photo at right shows Sarawak and regular white.
Left: Green Peppercorns Middle: Cubeb Pepper Right: Long Pepper