There’s more to cinnamon than being the perfect holiday spice. Once a prized gift for monarchs and reportedly worth 15x more in value than silver, here are some fun facts proving cinnamon’s history is as rich as its flavor!
1. Cinnamon’s broad range of uses made it invaluable in Ancient Egypt: preserving meat through the winter, treating sore throats, and it was even used as a perfume throughout the embalming process!
2. Cinnamon was an Arab merchant’s best-kept secret! To maintain their monopoly on the spice, they came up with quite the range of stories about their supply source…
Apparently the 5th century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus recalled people leaving large pieces of ox meat under birds nests, believing large birds carried cinnamon sticks from unreachable mountain tops.
3. Zakaria al-Qazwini – a Persian author and physician of Arab descent – is thought to be the first to mention that the spice is native to Sri Lanka, in his work “آثار البلاد و أخبار العباد” (“Monument of Places and History of God’s Bondsmen”) around 1270.
4. Spanish explorer Gonzalo Pizarro set out to the Amazon hoping to find “pais de la canela” or “cinnamon country” after Christopher Columbus falsely claimed he found cinnamon in the “New World”.
5. Eventually, the Dutch rule over Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) monopolized the cinnamon trade for over 200 years!
6. There are two types of cinnamon we know and love today. You probably use cassia cinnamon for your holiday sweets. It’s primarily produced in Vietnam, China and Indonesia – and is the affordable variant.
But if you want to splurge on true cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, still produced in Sri Lanka is the way to go! It’s the preferred cinnamon choice in Central America, South America and South Asia and offers 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 “κιννάμωμον” (kinnámōmon), via Latin and medieval French. The Ancient Greek term itself is borrowed from a Phoenician word, said to be related to the Hebrew “קינמון” (qinnāmōn). In turn, this Hebrew name may come from the Sri Lankan source of the spice, since cinnamon in Singhalese is “kurundu”.
8. Several European languages use some derivation of the Latin “canna”, meaning “tube”, for cinnamon, e.g. French “canelle” and Spanish “canela”. This refers to the curled shape of the spice.
9. Interestingly, since the source of cinnamon was kept secret by early Arab 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 “دارچین” (daarcheen) in Persian translates literally to “Chinese tree”! (PS. The Turkish word for cinnamon,“tarçın”, and Kurdish “darçîn”, are derived from the Persian, too!)
10. Cinnamon is one of the staple spices used particularly in Arab and Persian cuisines. It’s an element of the Persian spice blend called “ادویه” (advieh), as well as used in the delicious Lebanese couscous dish “moghrabieh”, meaning “a dish from the Maghreb”, among others!
Fascinated by the culture and history of word translations and etymologies? Or know someone who is?