Cassia is one of those spices that has suffered a particularly bad bout of publicity: commonly denounced as the “fake Cinnamon” or as an inferior spice, Cassia is rather misunderstood. Cassia is the bark of the cassia tree – a tree indigenous to China, which carries crop with flavour characteristics close to Cinnamon.
Part of the problem may lie in the fact that it’s produced by China, a producer that the public has a general level of wariness towards. But China has been producing delicious spices, food and other ingredients for millennia. The real heart of the problem is it’s poor choice of botanical name: Cinnamomum cassia, due to the characteristics it shares with Ceylon’s Cinnamomum verum, its much more potent Sri-Lankan counterpart. In American, British and Indian supermarkets, Cassia is often sold by our industrial customers under the same umbrella: Cinnamon. So what happened to Cinnamon? The reality of the fact is, Cinnamon, per se, is too strong for consumers. The flavours are heavily exaggerated, and can only be used when heavily masked in industrial processes. Taken by itself, it’s even dangerous (as the recent trend of Youtubers attempting to eat a spoonful will tell you).
Cassia on the other hand, has a milder, more complex flavour. It’s sweet and spicy at the same time, and is the unique blend that works brilliantly in chocolates, desserts and other slow cooking. It’s also one of the ingredients in the famous Five Spice Powder. Yet it’s hard to cultivate: many producers such as those in Vietnam, and Indonesia have tried to imitate the signature Chinese Cassia taste, but to no avail. These varieties are also sold under the same variety, but in fresh cooking, the lack of flavour is instantly apparent.
Chinese Cassia barks grow wildly throughout China, and are grow especially well in the mountains along the Pearl River. Each tree only provides around 1kg of Cassia, making it an expensive investment for farmers – planting, five years of nurturing the tree to its perfect level of flavour, and the laborious journey to the mountains for chopping, peeling the Cassia bark and bringing the Cassia back to their villages for selling. Over the past few decades, particularly since China’s rise in wealth and prosperity, farming jobs are becoming less popular amongst local farmers’ children, who prefer to search for easier, less laborious ones instead. It’s a problem that plagues the craft across the board of spices, but Cassia is one which is particularly badly hit: not only is there a 10km journey involving carrying Cassia on farmers’ backs up and down the Cassia mountains, but it can only be harvested in one month per year. Miss the opportunity, and it’s back to nurturing the crop until next year when the season permits felling trees again.
As for the flavour – it’s the only way to provide that distinct Chinese spice, and is now so deeply engrained in our taste buds, that true Cinnamon is also far too harsh to consume directly. Both spices have their place, however we find Cassia is easier to use, and its distinct flavour is also highly amicable.
The problem that does surround Cassia and Cinnamon alike, is a lack of transparency. Cassia leaves, Cinnamon leaves, seeds, and stems are often clumped into a mixture when the spice is sold in its powdered form. Besides tasting and comparing the pure and the powdered, there’s no way for people to tell what has been used. Leaves and stems contain only the mildest quantities of aroma and flavour, so we highly suggest buying them as Cassia sticks or bark whenever possible, and only when their origins are provided with transparency: Important both for health and taste.