Cassia: A Bittersweet Spice Warms Up Autumn’s Chill; the Other Cinnamon

Thick Indonesian cassia bark curls into scroll-like sticks or quills when it is dried. Most of the cinnamon consumed in the U.S. is actually Indonesian cassia.

Thick Indonesian cassia bark curls into scroll-like sticks or quills when it is dried.
Most of the cinnamon consumed in the U.S. is actually Indonesian cassia.

This morning the thermometer read 32 degrees. Frost fingers covered the grass and the last of the tropicals had collapsed. It was goodbye to the canna, farewell to the angel’s trumpet, au revoir to the red-splotched banana.

It was cold.

Cold enough for a bowl of creamy oatmeal, sprinkled with fragrant cinnamon, eaten in the kitchen while I surveyed the damage from the window. Ironically it took a spice from the tropics to ward off the chill–but was it really cinnamon?

Actually it was cassia, the “other” cinnamon. The two spices are closely related, but there are also striking differences between them. Here are a few facts:

Botanical lore:
Like its cousin cinnamon, cassia belongs to the vast Lauraceae family of tropical and subtropical plants. More specifically, it is a member of the genus cinnamomum, which includes not only Ceylon or “true” cinnamon, but also the three varieties of cassia used in cooking–c. burmanii, c. aromaticum (or c. cassia) ,and c. loureirii.

What It Looks Like: Cassia is the aromatic inner bark of a small evergreen tree. At harvest time, the bark is stripped and cut into squares. As it dries, the edges curl in upon themselves, creating hard, scroll-like quills that break with a snap. In Cradle of Flavor, James Oseland describes villages in “highland Sumatra and Java…whose streets are carpeted year-round with drying cassia quills” as “a vision straight out of Oz!” The spice ranges in color from dark to light reddish brown, unlike “true” cinnamon which has a golden hue.

Cassia is sold in the familiar stick form, or ground to a fine powder. You can grind small quills at home for fresher flavor, but may have to sift the powder to remove tough fragments of the bark.

How It Smells and Tastes:
Cassia has a pungent cinammon-like aroma and bittersweet taste that are relatively one-dimensional. When you nibble the bark, its sweetness quickly turns hot and it has a rougher, more astringent edge than its Ceylon cousin.

The spice’s aromatic properties come from cinnemaldehyde, an oily compound which produces the taste and smell we call “cinnamon.” According to Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages, cassia is 75 to 90 percent cinnemaldehyde, which puts it at the strong end of the scale. In contrast, Ceylon cinnamon is 65 to 75 percent cinnemaldehyde; this lower content, combined with other compounds such as clove and lily of the valley, gives true cinnamon a subtler, more complex flavor and aroma.

The Source: Cassia is grown in Asia, primarily in Indonesia, China and Vietnam, but also in India and Malaysia. Each country grows a different variety of the spice, and uses it differently in cooking.

Indonesia: Although cassia is thought to have originated in Burma, today over half the world’s supply comes from Indonesia. The most flavorful Indonesian cassia (c. burmanii) is grown on the slopes of Mount Kerinci, an active volcano on the island of Sumatra. Korintje cinnamon, as it is known, is moderately aromatic, with a straightforward bittersweet taste. Most of the “cinnamon” sold in the U.S. is actually Indonesian cassia.

The spice is not widely used in Indonesian cooking, but it is a key ingredient of beef rendang, a “signature” dish from the Minangkabau highlands of West Sumatra. In Cradle of Flavor, Oseland mixes beef chuck with a vivid paste of nutmeg, cloves, chiles, turmeric, ginger and galangal, then simmers it in coconut milk with “cinnamon” until the liquid has been reduced to a thick sauce and the beef is “the color of roasted coffee beans.” Cassia not only lends its bittersweet taste to the rendang, but also pulls together the other spices, combining them into a complex, but harmonious set of flavors.

China: Chinese cinnamon or c. aromaticum (also c. cassia) tends to be sweet with a peppery after-bite. Its flavor derives in part from coumarin, a powerful naturally occurring anticoagulant that smells and tastes like vanilla. (In Mexico, cheap “vanilla” has been found to contain dangerous amounts of coumarin in lieu of the more expensive extract.) Although there was a recent flurry in Germany over the coumarin content of cassia cookies, you’d have to consume huge quantities for the spice to be a genuine health risk.

Sweet-smelling Chinese cassia is almost always found in the five-spice powder of Sichuan. In Land of Plenty, Fuschia Dunlop’s Fragrant and Crispy Duck is marinated in a similar mixture of crushed whole spices–cassia, star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel, cloves and dried ginger–then steamed and deep fried until the skin is “marvelously crisp and golden.” Cassia and some of the same spices also turn up in her recipe for Five Spiced “Smoked” Fish: Here, the fish is not smoked, but, in a technique not unlike Indonesian rendang cookery, it is simmered in a spice-laden broth until the liquid has been reduced to a sauce which is drizzled over the fillets.

Vietnamese cassia—a.k.a. Saigon cinnamon—is actually grown in North Vietnam near the border with China. Of all the cassias, c. loueirii has the highest cinnemaldehyde content, making it the richest, most powerfully aromatic of the three varieties used in cooking. (Saigon cinnamon is now part of McCormick’s “gourmet” collection.)

Cassia is a key ingredient in pho, the popular North Vietnamese breakfast soup that is also flavored with star anise. (Go here to see SpiceLines pho recipe.) It is also used to make the wonderfully fragrant “cinnamon” boxes that are sold in Hanoi.

How to Use Cassia:

Use cassia when you are seeking a pungent, straightforward “cinnamon” taste.

Whole sticks can be used to infuse bittersweet flavor into any savory dish with a liquid base—soups, stews, braises, poached fruit, tagines, tomato sauces. To coax more flavor from cassia, dry roast whole sticks in a cast iron pan over medium heat, or fry them in a little hot oil before adding them to the liquid.

Use powdered cassia when baking cakes, cookies, pies, cinammon rolls, or other pastries that would benefit from its strong flavor. It is wonderful in fruit desserts, in ice cream and with chocolate, while its natural astringency prevents all that sugary sweetness from becoming too cloying.

If you’d like to experiment with the different types of cassia–sweet Chinese, intense Vietnamese or traditional Indonesian—all can be ordered from premium spice merchants such as Penzeys or The Savory Spice Shop. Chinese cassia makes wonderful cinnamon sugar for dusting over oatmeal or buttered toast, while the most delicious fried chicken is dredged in flour mixed with black pepper and Saigon cinnamon.

Cassia blends well with sweet spices such as cloves, coriander and nutmeg, as well as with pungent spices such as ginger, cardamom, allspice, peppercorns and dried chiles of all kinds. Cassia mixed with any of these spices makes an interesting rub for grilled pork, chicken or duck.

But be careful: A little cassia goes a long way. If you use too much, its astringency can become bitter. Start with a little and taste as you go; once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no turning back.

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