(Cinnamomum cassia, C. burmannii, and C. loureirii – Family Lauraceae)
Cassia is a spice that looks and tastes like cinnamon but is of an inferior quality. Sometimes known as “false” cinnamon, cassia is derived from several related species, notably the Chinese cassia (C. cassia), the Indonesian cassia (C. burmannii), and the Saigon cassia (C. loureirii). Each has a multitude of alternate names, and distinguishing between the varieties is not for the faint of heart. Cassia is marketed and used like cinnamon and in the same forms: cured, curled, or powdered. The dried, unripened cassia fruits are also used in China and elsewhere much like the “nails” of cloves.
Cassia is first mentioned in the annals of China dating from 2500 BCE, and exported to Egypt as early as 1700 BCE, and mentioned in the Old Testament as being a separate spice from the regular cinnamon. Ancient Greeks obtained it from the Phoenicians. It is rare in the US, but widely available in Canada, where its fine quality is usually marketed as “hunan cinnamon”. During a period when imports from China were banned, US chemists had to devise a system of testing cassia bark by gas chromatography in order to identify and exclude any of the Chinese varieties of cassia. In very ancient times, cinnamon sticks were used by huge birds in Arabia for the construction of their cliff-top nests. A way of gathering the spice was to tempt the birds into flying back to their nests with pieces of meat so heavy that it would cause the entire nest to collapse into the waiting arms of the Arabs. Cassia was a quite a different matter, however. It grew in shallow lakes, protected by batlike creatures, which squeaked an alarm and tried to ward off the Arab pickers, who had to be fortified with leather gear from head to foot to gather the crop. However, they would still have to shield their eyes from an assault. By the Middle Ages, the two spices were distinguished by mere status. Cinnamon was for lords and cassia (canelle) was for common folk. Good cassia is a respectable spice, although the flavour is less delicate than that of cinnamon. The colour is reddish-brown, compared with the tan of true cinnamon.