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22 February 2007

the kiss of cinnamon

Saigon cinnamon

Going to the spice store with the Chef is one of the sensory highlights of my week.

"What do you need?" I ask him, hungrily anticipating the smells. Vanilla beans? Last week, they had in a fresh shipment — perhaps from Tahiti — and the beans were as fat and black as old-fashioned licorice. Madras curry powder? He buys the muddy yellow spice mix whole and grinds just the amount he needs for the restaurant. The curried carrot soup he created with it, spontaneously, was so richly flavored and unexpected that we made it three more times, and then wrote it up as a recipe for the book. Fennel seed? We could try those turkey burgers that Alfred Portale wrote about.

I never know what will greet us when we walk into the tiny shop on Western Avenue, curled under the Pike Place Market. When they are roasting spices on the spot, I walk in a daze through the store, my nose searching for the source of that smell. Tastes leap into my mind, and I want to try them all. Dukka — what could I do with that? Sometimes, I buy spices I have never heard of, in one-ounce portions, just to make myself experiment.

Their assam tea kicks ass, too.

My favorite moment at World Spice, however, arrived as a surpirse. Don't they always? The Chef called to me, from three feet away, and said, "Sweetie, try this." He dabbed his finger in the burnt sienna powder he had just purchased, and then put it on his lips. "Kiss me," he said. When I did, my lips danced, a wild sharpness and vivid sweetness mixing on my tongue to mingle and emerge, entirely unexpected. It tasted hauntingly familiar, but new. The sensation reminded me of when I was a kid, and I forced myself to walk around the house with my eyes closed, to imagine what it might be like to be blind. When I opened my eyes, everything gleamed, brightly, born again for a few seconds, new to my senses.

"What is that?" I asked him.
He turned the little glass jar and pointed to the label. "Saigon cinnamon."

Cinnamon harvested in Vietnam is actually called cassia. ("True" cinnamon is actually much milder than what we have grown accustomed to, in this country.) In small villages in Vietnam, people grind the older bark that is lower to the ground, rich in pungent oils and just more so than the branches above it. This ground cassia is shipped to Seattle, and sold to me at World Spice.

It sits now in our kitchen, a pinch ready to mingle amidst apples to make a truly extraordinary pie. If we need cinnamon, for Moroccan dishes, we use only this "Saigon cinnamon" from World Spice, now. The cinnamon I lived with for three decades before this feels flat and dulled on my tongue.

We try to buy it in tiny amounts, however — Saigon cinnamon is so strong that only 1/8 of a teaspoon spices an entire dish — so that we can have that experience, again and again, of returning to the spice store, together, to share new tastes.


At 4:42 PM, Blogger s'kat said...

Mmmm, I have had Saigon cinnamon ice cream that just blew my mind... I had to order my own. Incredible stuff, but granted, I have never licked it from the lips of the one I love.

Oysters never had it so good!

At 8:21 PM, Blogger Mike Eberhart said...

That Saigon cinnamon sounds great, and highly potent. I just hope someone doesn't put a Teaspoon of it into one of my recipes that calls for cinnamon, only to find out that the result would be overwhelming from what you describe.

Now, I personally love cinnamon, and can rarely get enough of it. So, I'm going to try to track some of that down and give it a try. To my knowledge, I have never encountered it. Thanks for the Cinnamon education Shauna.

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Slacker Mom said...

I love the way he introduced you to the taste!!! :)

I love cinnamon, I have a sprinkle on my cappuccino everyday. I just might have to try other cinnamons now, I have seen them in the Penzey's catalogue , but never thought anything about it.

Now I will!

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Trig said...

I guess we're lucky here in London because I can get Chinese/Saigon cinnamon, Indonesian cinnamon and Sri Lankan cinnamon in local shops and supermarkets.

I prefer Sri Lankan, personally, and bought some earlier this week in Sainsbury's. But there's always some cassia at home as well.

I think the cassia is slightly more bitter and, like the Indonesian, best suited for savoury cooking, whereas the Sri Lankan is perfect for something like the apple sauce I made this week.

Whatever you choose or do with it, cinnamon is one of the world's greatest spices!

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Maegan said...

Lovely post that left the reminder lingering in one's mind that there are so many spices available to average Americans that we haven't so much as tasted. Rather exciting! I just wanted to commend you for your frequent posts and pictures. Don't feel obliged to keep up such a pace but it is balm to the soul of those of us who are somewhat addicted to your lithe prose.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Suzi said...

Your post reminded me of a spice course my husband and I did years ago in Sydney, Australia. So many wonderful smells and flavours.
Thanks for bring back those great memories.


At 3:57 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

I have just found your blog. I have to say I am trilled. I have been pouring over your posts looking for any recipes that you added that aren’t actually on the recipe list (yet). I can’t wait for October to come, your book will be on my Christmas wish list for sure.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Thank you for writing about World Spice today! I'm in downtown Seattle for the weekend and was planning to stop by the market tomorrow, anyway -- now my meanderings will have direction. I'll have the most fragrant luggage on the plane.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Fran said...

What a wonderful account! I purchased Saigon Cinnamon at Costco & while it may not be as fresh as yours sounds, it is a real treat. I love it.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Ellen said...

What a lovely way to be introduced to a new spice - with a kiss!!! I would love to order some of that Saigon cinnamon. Do you think they ship? I will try getting in touch with them. What I am also wondering is whether you have any thoughts about the gluten free status of spices. How can one be sure that the spice you're purchasing is gluten free?

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Tang said...

Thank you so much for this post. I had to stop in today and get some Saigon cinnamon for myself. I have always loved cinnamon, but apparently have never really tasted it until today!

I told them that they should give you a discount for your free advertising :)

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Shauna said...


Saigon cinnamon ice cream? Oh dear, I'm going to have to ask that he make that this weekend.


You're right. You don't want to try too much. I think you will like this cinnamon, however.

Slacker Mom,

I have to admit — that action he took with the cinnamon is one of the sexiest things he has ever done. And he just naturally does stuff like that every day. It helps to be with someone who lives in food.


Wow, the food selection in Great Britain has changed so much since I lived there in 1982! I agree with you — this cinnamon is great in savory foods. (I have this idea for sea scallops with cinnamon....)But it really does work well with sweets. Now, I have to track down the Sri Lankan cinnamon.


Thank you for what you wrote. You know, now that the book is done (and going to print), I'm starting to settle back in here and really just write for the joy of it. I'm going to take Sundays and Mondays off — the days the Chef has off from work — but there will be something here most days. I can't resist!


You're welcome. It's amazing what our minds hold, doesn't it? I love how smells can evoke our entire lives.


Thank you! Oh, you've reminded me. I don't think I have catalogued recipes for weeks. Gulp! Thanks for getting me back to it.


Have a wonderful time. You can't go wrong with anything in the Market.


How much the food selection in America has changed too. Saigon cinnamon at Costco. Wow.


They do ship! They are fantastic, and some of the biggest names in the food world swear by them. Try them out.


Now that was immediate action! Discount? Well, I certainly wouldn't mind...


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