Culinary ubiquity has done little to reduce the appeal of cinnamon; when a spice becomes a chewing gum flavour, it seems safe to say the aromatic is well embraced by mainstream food culture. And yet its savoury characteristics are far less defined.
That cinnamon is a bark means the spice has an inherent upright strength on the palate. Earth spice is dirt and dust and grounding (cumin seed, ground coriander). Forested flavour is wild sweetness (dried methi being the best example). Think of a tree trunk and think of elegance, complexity and height – this is cinnamon.
Cinnamon’s personality is poetically articulated in my old childhood favourite, mattar chaaman. Peas and paneer.
Paneer is a type of homemade Indian cheese. Make it as you would ricotta. I boil three litres of milk, adding two heaped tablespoons of plain thick yoghurt and enough lemon juice to split the liquid upon boiling - around a quarter of a cup, maybe a little more.
After hanging the cheese in muslin cloth for a few hours (if I’ve got my act together I make the cheese the day before and hang it overnight), it’s cut into cubes and shallow-fried in a kadai (shallow pan) of spitting hot vegetable oil.
Frying lends the paneer an acrid quality. In the world of spice, a little acrid is good, working as a foil to sweetness and acidity and as a companion to heat and earth.
Think of a tree trunk and think of elegance, complexity and height – this is cinnamon.
This is where cinnamon makes her high-kicking entrance.
One of the keys to deliciousness is flavour repetition. Professional chefs are brilliant with it – my recent favourite dish eaten out was scallop with carrot three ways; carrot pickled and carrot pureed, the puree itself compiled of both roasted and juiced carrots. Using different textures and techniques with single or complimentary ingredients is all about creating depth inside the same flavour profile. When a flavour has depth, it lingers in the mouth, allowing the person eating to pick up tastes of nuance that are otherwise difficult to discern.
Cinnamon’s relationship to fried chaaman is such that it echoes and highlights all of the cooked paneer’s most delicious qualities, particularly when using cinnamon quills. (Ground cinnamon is less overtly woody and so less complex.)
In the pan, paneer and cinnamon relate at three separate points. The quill’s overt tree bitterness is a foil for the acrid surface taste of fried paneer. Once the quill’s aroma is released by heat and fat, its high note emerges, finding an echo in the paneer’s lactose sweetness. Depth is the last: each spice has its own volume, and cinnamon is no different – the body of this spice is strength in nurture, a characteristic shared by paneer’s dairy richness.
Working spice with ingredients like this gives the mattar chaaman a central spine around which all of the other aromatics play. With sweetness and bitterness and volume of flavour enunciated, my paneer can handle a whole lot more spice – mace flower, clove and star anise; a single black cardamom pod for shadow; green cardamom and its cool menthol breeze.
Cinnamon; capable of being so much more than the sprinkle on your banana smoothies.
Turmeric won’t tell you its secrets upfront. Bitter spices never do. Get intimate with its characteristics with this simple dhal.
Sarina Kamini is The Spice Mistress - spices tell her their secrets and she shares theirs with you. Don't miss her column, The Spice Mistress, on SBS Food. Keep in touch with in touch with her on Facebook @sarinakamini and Instagram @sarina_kamini.