Cinnamon sticks' sweet surprise
Everlasting Flavors is a series profiling the condiments, sauces and spices that define Chinese cooking.
Cinnamon, the aromatic condiment made from tree bark, is an intriguing spice in both Chinese and Western cuisine.
Before Western cuisine became as common in China as it is today, seeing cinnamon used in cakes and pastries used to be a shock when traveling abroad, as it was difficult to relate something Chinese people used in stewing meat to a dessert flavor — cinnamon is seldom used in sweet cooking in China besides certain teas.
Cinnamon sticks are a must-have in a Chinese pantry, they can boost the aroma of braised meat dishes, deepen the flavor of soups and even act as a pick-me-up when brewed in teas.
Small sticks, huge flavors
Cinnamon is known as rougui or guipi in China, and as a native species, it has a long history going back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when it was used as a spice for cooking meat alongside ginger.
Among Chinese spices, cinnamon is considered one of “The Big Four.” Its specialty is bringing a unique fragrance to ordinary ingredients and a sweet and pungent flavor that would strike the palate.
High-quality cinnamon should be thick and dry.
When cooking meat, cinnamon is a magical spice that helps to remove any unpleasant meaty smell, toning down the fat and oil and at the same time adding more flavor to the dish. It’s best suited for bold and rich recipes such as Dongpo pork, beggar’s chicken, duck stewed in soy sauce, braised pork and all kinds of stewed meats — cooking cinnamon in stock for a longer time allows its flavor to infuse in other ingredients better.
Cinnamon is one of the ingredients in the renowned Chinese five-spice powder together with star anise, cloves, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds.
Cinnamon is rich in benzaldehyde, cinnamyl alcohol, caryophyllene and coumarin, which contribute to its fragrance and flavor that is widely used in food, beverages, essential oils, cosmetics and medicine.
There are different species of cinnamon that are widely used in cooking and traditional Chinese medicine, the flavor of which may differ slightly, but one thing they have in common is their unique, strong fragrance and distinct flavor.
Cinnamomum cassia, or Chinese cinnamon, is the most common commercial variety. It’s grown in southern Chinese regions including the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces. The newly grown fruits of cinnamon trees have the strongest fragrance, followed by the flower stalk, bark, leaves and branches. Cinnamon also has an antiseptic effect.
The flavor of Chinese cinnamon may be slightly different from that grown in Sri Lanka or Vietnam.
The cinnamon oil extracted from the plant is used in TCM for rheumatism, skin itching and warms the stomach as well as promoting blood circulation.
Qingliangyou, a traditional Chinese essential oil balm that’s used to relieve itchiness from bug bites and cooling down the temperature, has cinnamon oil in it.
The Ceylon cinnamon bark oil is used by famous companies like Coca-Cola.
In the West, cinnamon is used in beverages like mulled wine, hot apple cider and apple cinnamon tea. In China, cinnamon and ginger is a popular combination, which is flavored with lemon and honey, or the richer cinnamon and jujube tea.
In the Wuyi Mountain region, there’s a very famous cinnamon tea, but it’s not actually made with cinnamon the spice, but an oolong tea variety that shares the similar fragrance and sweetness to the cinnamon tree.
When cooking with cinnamon sticks, it’s important to note that damp or moldy ones must not be used. You can remove dirt and impurities by scraping gently with a small knife, which also helps boost the flavor.
Cinnamon should also be used with caution, as the coumarin it contains could damage the liver when too much is consumed within a short time.
In search of Shanghai’s cinnamon treats
Cinnamon rolls are a comfort food commonly eaten in North American and Northern Europe. They are one of the most favorite pastries and who can’t say no to a sweet, hot and meltingly delicious cinnamon bun at any time.
The recipes for cinnamon rolls vary in different cuisines. The buns have different shapes, textures and small variations of flavor. Cinnamon rolls are best enjoyed with coffee or tea.
Here are three Shanghai bakeries known for their cinnamon rolls.
CinnaSwirl is the place to be when you are looking to buy sweet, soft cinnamon rolls. This bakery specializes on one thing and one thing only, different flavors of cinnamon roll.
The business was created by Heather and Jared Turner from their home kitchen as a delivery operation before the first shop was set up in the Jing’an Temple area. When walking into the small and narrow shop on Yuyuan Road E., the delicious smell of cinnamon and caramel makes it impossible to leave empty handed.
The menu features six types of rolls — classic, walnut, raisin, apple, caramel pecan and mini. All cinnamon rolls are freshly swirled and baked in the shop every day. The price for each roll ranges from 18 yuan (US$2.68) to 25 yuan depending on the flavor,
The style of CinnaSwirl’s cinnamon rolls is American — soft, airy and packed with lots of cinnamon and nuts. A very nice bonus is that customers can choose either cream cheese or caramel sauce as icing, then decided how they want the rolls to be covered.
Besides cinnamon rolls, CinnaSwirl also sells coffee and hot chocolate to complete the perfect breakfast. There’s also an ice cream menu serving flavors like classic cinnamon, mint chocolate, vanilla and more. The price is 30 yuan for one scoop and 50 for two. The cinnamon flavor is especially popular and not easy to find elsewhere.
Address: 32 Yuyuan Rd E.
The Italian artisan bakery Princi at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery is among the priciest baked goods stores in Shanghai with cakes costing 88 yuan per piece and loafs of bread going for more than 100. But they do make a top-notch cinnamon roll which is not too expensive at 30 yuan.
The style is different from the classic American cinnamon rolls. It’s flat, more swirled and has a delightful crispiness on the outside with a thin coating of sugar that adds to the flavor and texture.
The sweet cinnamon roll goes well with bitter coffee.
Princi’s baked goods are on sale in the evening before the store closes, and many breads are buy one get one free.
Address: Unit 110&201, 789 Nanjing Rd W.
This low-key Swedish café and bakery is a hidden gem on popular Yuyuan Road, and one of its bestsellers is a Swedish-style cinnamon roll.
The cinnamon roll is quite elegant in terms of both presentation and flavor. It’s not overly sweet, yet very soft and fluffy with a strong cinnamon flavor.
Smaka has a breakfast set between 8am and 10am from Monday to Friday. Picking a coffee or tea and a bread or pastry will get 8 yuan off the order.
The café’s second floor is nicely decorated for enjoying the pastries and coffee at leisure. It also sells some unique Nordic-style cakes and sweet treats.
Address: 769-3 Yuyuan Rd