Chapter 4, Part 11
Last year, James and I explored six countries in Southeast and South Asia for six months to retrace parts of the spice route which had connected nations across both regions as well as attracted merchants from Europe to get their share of the lucrative trade. In the fabled Spice Islands, we visited Ternate and Tidore where clove originated from. One month later, we went to the Banda Islands – a tiny and remote part of the Spice Islands – which until the 19th century was the only place on earth where nutmeg grew.
After leaving the Spice Islands, we headed to an island in the Indian Ocean to learn about another spice so loved and widely used today. Cinnamon had been known by peoples from all over the Old World for millennia. The ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Israelites, Romans, and medieval Europeans used it for multiple purposes: from adding flavor to wine, to an essential part in religious ceremonies, and a gift for deities and rulers alike.
From a small town on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka called Balapitiya, we embarked on our short journey across Madu Ganga – a wetland ecosystem that is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals – to reach a small island where cinnamon was still processed in a traditional way. Our small boat plied the calm water upstream with dense and verdant mangrove forests guiding us through the sophisticated network of waterways. At times, the skipper asked us to crouch down whenever we were about to pass under a low bridge. About half an hour later, we arrived on a small island where a few modest houses sat in the shade of the lush canopy above.
Occupied by only one family, the island is one of several small islands in Madu Ganga where cinnamon processing is carried out by the locals. Under a humble open-air pavilion, a barechested middle-aged man with gray hair sat cross-legged while less than a dozen pairs of eyes were watching him skillfully working on a cinnamon tree branch. First, he shaved the rough outer part of the bark, and instantly the sweet scent of fresh cinnamon filled the air. The waste would be used as compost, he said. Then the shaved bark was further softened by a metal stick before it was peeled off completely, dried, and eventually sold at the market. The remaining tree branches would later be used as firewood. Throughout the entire process I recalled sniffing the sweetest scent of cinnamon in my life, so much sweeter than the usual cinnamon found at supermarkets.
In fact, Sri Lankan cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) is considered ‘true cinnamon’, while the one widely consumed all over the world today comes from different plants from the same genus – Cinnamomum – including Cinnamomum cassia (often called cassia or Chinese cinnamon), Cinnamomum burmannii (Indonesian cinnamon), Cinnamomum loureiroi (Vietnamese cinnamon), and several other cinnamon species. Someone told us that Sri Lankan cinnamon is the only species of cinnamon which does not contain toxins – referring to a substance called coumarin which if consumed excessively could cause damage to the liver and kidneys. However, according to scientific research Cinnamomum verum does contain coumarin, albeit in a much lower amount compared to other types of cinnamon.
Our journey continued. After leaving the small island, our boat went through a narrow tunnel of intertwined mangrove roots which opened up to a large lake. We passed a few small and seemingly uninhabited islands before spotting a white edifice topped with terracotta roof tiles, conspicuous amid the surrounding greenery. The Buddhist temple of Kothduwa Vihara was a peaceful sanctuary situated at the heart of such a tranquil corner of Sri Lanka. A few visitors paid respect to the Buddha, while others gathered by the pier to feed a Malabar giant squirrel who was attracted by free food below. It’s called giant for an apparent reason as I had never seen a squirrel that big before.
Feeling the temple’s serenity one would be forgiven to not realize the conflicts centuries ago among European powers and their local allies to control the cinnamon trade – started by the Portuguese in the 16th century, continued by the Dutch in the 17th century, and then the British a century later until 1948 when Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) gained independence. As is the case with other spices, behind their sweet and delightful aroma lies a dark history of bloody conflict driven by greed.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.