Food Of Vietnam FOODOFVIETNAM.COM
Vietnamese Cinnamon As Trade Regulations Relax, Spice Merchants Seek Out High-Quality Cinnamon Keys: Spices Vietnamese Vietnam Asian Oriental Indonesian Indonesia Vietnamese Yield: 1 Ingredients:Method:
HANOI - The search for cinnamon isn't easy here. You can find long, parchment-like rolled bark in spice markets in the city's Old Quarter. You can find cinnamon trees in the mountains to the north or in the central highlands.
But mostly, when people here are asked for their sources of cinnamon, their response is a puzzled 'Why?' Given that their cuisine is lavish with fresh green herbs, many Vietnamese seem hard-pressed to understand such interest in a dried spice.
Not much Vietnamese cinnamon is sent to the United States. Until recently, the big American spice companies had obtained most of their cinnamon from Indonesia and China because of restrictions on trade with Vietnam - another legacy of the American War, as the Vietnamese call it - that were eased only last year.
But the cinnamon trade is growing, and it is of particular interest to boutique spice merchants seeking high-quality cinnamon. Specialty marketers such as Bill Penzey of Milwaukee-based Penzeys Spices, and Lucia Cleveland, founder and product researcher for the California-based Spice Hunter company, visit Vietnam because the country's cinnamon is some of the best in the world.
The misty green highlands near the Chinese border provide the perfect climate for growing the trees these spice hunters are looking for.
This cinnamon is more precisely called cassia (Cinnamonum cassia) and is a relative of the 'true' cinnamon (C. zeylanicum), an evergreen native to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan cinnamon has a smooth, mild flavor. Cassia is sweeter but with a spicy bite. And Vietnamese cassia's high essential-oil content, which gives it a potent punch, is just the thing to attract importers on the lookout for new sources and new flavors.
'What is cinnamon? It's tree bark,' said Tom Erd, co-owner of the Spice House in Evanston, Ill. 'Ground cinnamon is sawdust. But there is good sawdust and bad sawdust.'
To harvest the bark, producers have to find trees that are at least 10 years old. The Spice Hunter's Cleveland found 25-year-old trees. Although the cassia was 'growing everywhere,' she said, 'very little of it was being harvested.'
Turmeric and ginger are more likely to star as ingredients in Vietnamese cooking. When cinnamon is used, according to food writer and Sacramento restaurateur Mai Pham, it is in slow-cooked dishes, many of which reflect the dishes of China.
'The first thing that comes to mind is pho or as a marinade for meats and chicken or in braised, clay-pot cooking,' said Pham, author of 'Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table' (HarperCollins, $27.50).
Cinnamon has been exported from this part of the world for centuries. The Chinese were sending cassia in caravans to Central Asia by A.D. 100, according to James Trager's 'The Food Chronology.'
As the spice moved west, it entered the cuisine of the Middle East, India and Europe. Solomon mentions the perfume of cinnamon in the Bible, and ancient Egyptians used it occasionally in their embalming rituals.
The Chinese cassia, like the Vietnamese and Indonesian varieties, is preferred for the American market, where, despite its pungency, it is consumed primarily with sweet foods and beverages. Even when cinnamon plays up its spicy potential, it's for candy: Hot Tamales, Red Hots and cinnamon gum.
The mellower 'Ceylon-type' cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka and also found in Madagascar, China and the Seychelles Islands, is mostly exported to Mexico, Central America and South America.
A third species - called canella, after the Spanish word for cinnamon - has bark with a similar fragrance but is known as 'white cinnamon.'
Cinnamon growers north of Hanoi gladly show off the tall cassia trees with their dull gray trunks and broad, waxy, dark green leaves. The bark is rough and spotted with pale patches.
When grower Tuyen Minh shaved off a length of bark with his machete to expose a layer of soft, white pulp, the air was touched with only a faint aroma of cinnamon. But break the bark and the sharp smell is there. Even more powerful is the oil sucked from the leaf's stem, powerful and spicy enough for a red hot candy.
It's a long ride from here back to Hanoi, and a question remained: where to find cinnamon in Vietnam's cuisine?
Pho, which can be found everywhere in the city, is one answer. And so, on a morning made steamier by the tail end of a downpour, I visited Mai Anh Pho to complete the quest.
Outside the open windows, the whir of countless bicycles barely competed with the incessant honking from weaving cars. Exhaust fumes made it difficult to uncover the fragrance of the soup.
But as chopsticks stirred slender white noodles and pieces of thinly sliced beef, up came a whiff of cinnamon. Subtle and comforting, mingled with the scents of star anise and ginger, the cinnamon, grown in the mountains, cut by hand and laboriously ground, sweetly made a bow.