Cinnamon: Sweet or Savory?

Growing up in Applachia, there was one spice, other than pepper, that was in everyone’s cabinet: cinnamon.

Specifically, ground cinnamon. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I saw sticks of cinnamon, which is the bark of either the cinnamon or cassia tree, which are peeled up and allowed to dry into curled quills that exude the luscious fragrance of the familiar spice. The sticks keep their scent and flavor longer than the pre-ground cinnamon does, so, if one has access to a good spice grinder, I highly suggest buying cinnamon in sticks and then grinding it yourself. If you do buy it pre-ground, buy it in small amounts and use it quickly.

Of course, these injunctions meant nothing to me or anyone I knew when I was growing up. Everyone bought cinnamon maybe once every year or so, pre-ground, in metal cans, and no one worried about how fresh the spice was, probably because we had never tasted any that was truly fresh in the first place. So, how would we know?

Cinnamon was kept around to be baked into apple pies, cookies (particularly Snickerdoodles–rich butter cookes that are rolled into cinnamon sugar before baking), cakes and to flavor the batter for french toast, pancakes or muffins.

My favorite use of the spice came in the form of the ultimate childhood comfort food: cinnamon toast. Whole wheat bread, toasted, then well buttered, sprinkled heavily with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar that was heavy on the fragrant spice, and light on the sugar. (In fact, thinking of it now, made me run for the toaster; I am glad to report that cinnamon toast is still delicious.)

It never occured to many of the folks in my family that cinnamon might be used in any other context besides sweet.

In fact, I did not encounter cinnamon used in a savory dish until I first tasted Cincinnati style chili, which is based upon the Greek dish stifado. Stifado is a stew of beef that is spiced with cloves and cinnamon, and it served as the inspiration for Cincinnati chili which was invented by two Macedonian immigrants who found Americans unwilling to eat Greek style food. So, they put it over spaghetti, topped it with beans, raw onions, and cheese and called it chili.

I have to say, the first time I tasted it, I was less than impressed. I was eleven or twelve years old, and my Grandma had made some “5-Way” and watching my mother, uncles, father and Grandfather digging into it, I shrugged and figured that it must be good, even if I did think it smelled kind of funny.

I nearly gagged when the overwhelming flavor of cinnamon hit the back of my throat. I couldn’t eat it, and ended up eating some spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese instead.

Since then, my palate has expanded considerably, though I have to admit that even the smell of Cincinnati chili makes me shudder to this day. I have since eaten many a plate of stifado with great glee, and have personally added cinnamon to many a savory dish, but I still cannot eat that stuff they call chili in Cincinnati. Nope–give me proper Texas or New Mexico chili spiced with cumin and chiles any time, thank you.

The recipe I chose to highlight cinnamon is adaped from Madhur Jaffrey’s excellent cookbook, From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes From the Indian Spice Trail. The recipe is Ground Lamb Galavat Kebabs, which originated in the Muslim courts of Uttar Pradesh. The kebabs are very tender and flavorful, although I admit to leaving out the browned onions, because I was making a curry of potatoes and kale that was based on browned onions, and I wanted to keep the flavors from being too similar.

The garam masala I used in the dish is also adapted from Jaffrey’s every day garam masala blend; since I have discovered my allergy to black pepper, I have been leaving it out of Indian food. For the garam masala, I substituted allspice for the pepper, which gives an equally pungent, but different and fragrant flavor. I also fried two cinnamon sticks into the oil to infuse it with their fragrance and flavor before frying the kebabs in it. This is a really nice touch that results in a kebab with a haunting, ethereal flavor that is more scent than savor.

I also used green garlic in the kebabs, and when I made the green chutney to accompany them, I used green garlic in that, as well as my very own mint and cilantro from the garden. (Though I did have to dash out into the rain to pick the herbs!)

Here it is, then, my own entry to The Spice is Right II: Sweet or Savory–Galavat Kebabs with Green Chutney.

Galavat Kebabs with Green Chutney

Ingredients for the Garam Masala:

1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon black cumin (kala jeera) seeds
1/3 of a nutmeg
1 2″-3″ stick of cinnamon broken up into smallish pieces

Method:

Put all spices together in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and process into a fine powder. Store in jar with a tight lid, away from heat and light.

Ingredients for the Kebabs:

1 pound ground lamb
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 tablespoons peeled and finely ground fresh or minced ginger
3 stalks (white and light green parts) finely ground or minced green garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 whole thai red chile
4 teaspoons chickpea flour (besan), toasted over low heat until browned and nutty-smelling
4 teaspoons plain yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
canola oil for shallow frying
2 sticks cinnamon, broken into three pieces each

Method:

Mix together all ingredients except the oil, and cover. Refrigerate for 3 to 24 hours.

Form meat mixture into small round balls, about 1 1/2″ in diameter, then flatten them slightly into chubby patties.

Heat canola oil (it should be about 1/4 inch deep) in a frying pan over medium heat. Put cinnamon stick pieces into the oil, and fry, until the oil is fragrant and the bark darkens. Remove shards of cinnamon, and discard.

Place the patties in a single layer, not touching in the pan, and fry them gently for about 2-3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Serve with Green Chutney.

Ingredients for Green Chutney (Zak, Morganna and I just call this, “Green,” as in, “Pass the Green, please.”):

1 packed cup of mint leaves
1/4 packed cup of cilantro leaves and stems
3 Thai green chiles
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 stalk green garlic, white and light green parts cut into 1/2″ slices
1 small shallot, peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon lime juice
salt to taste

Method:

Put into food processor or grinder and process into a dark green, fragrant paste.

Wasn’t that easy?

16 Comments

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  1. One of my favourite snacks (which i no longer can eat) is powdered cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on butter white toast. Yum!

    Comment by Paul — May 16, 2006 #

  2. I have to agree with the cinnamon toast – something never heard of here in the UK but a favorite growing up in Canada.

    On the subject of cinnamon – I had a tomatoe based chicken curry the other day that was heavely flavoured with cinnamon and while I was very apprehensive on this combination of flavours I was pleasently surprised. The two worked very well together with the other strong flavours and was a delight to eat!

    Comment by sakitome — May 16, 2006 #

  3. This is amazing! I just tried a very similar kabob that called for mint for the first time last week on the day that we served chili syrup on icecream! We used the recipe in Alford and Duguid’s “Mangoes and Curry Leaves”. (but no cinnamon in it – only cumin coriander and cayenne pepper) I loved the mint in it though and next time, I’d use even more mint.

    And I wish we’d thought of making some “green”. What a great idea. Good thing there’s always next time.

    -Elizabeth

    P.S. And cinnamon toast… I love cinnamon toast! – made with butter, honey and cinnamon.

    Comment by ejm — May 16, 2006 #

  4. Hi Barbara,

    This is my entry to your event. Dont know whether you checked the other comments.

    http://injimanga.blogspot.com/2006/05/vanilla-flavored-shrimp.html

    Comment by L.G — May 16, 2006 #

  5. I didn’t know abt the Greek origin of Cincinnati chili–it makes me feel more friendly toward it in a conceptual way, although I still don’t like it much.

    Comment by lucette — May 16, 2006 #

  6. Mmmm, cinnamon toast. I grew up on the stuff. Delicious.

    I went to college close to Cincinnati, and there was a Skyline right uptown. I probably only went once a year, when the craving for a chili dog grew too much to bear. But generally, I’m not a fan of the stuff. Isn’t dark chocolate also an ingredient in Cincinnati chili? Or maybe it’s just the cinnamon and I’m remembering wrong…

    A handful of years ago I had a recipe for a butternut squash chili that got rave reviews from my friends. In the recipe, you made a spice mixture with maybe a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon (along with cumin, pepper, paprika, etc.), then you added a tablespoon of the mixture to the chili. So there was maybe a 1/4 teaspoon in the entire pot. When I made it for my family, *nobody* liked it. My mother insisted that all she could smell/taste was that cinnamon, and they just could not get into the idea of a savory dish using that spice. Couldn’t understand why you’d even do it. They still talk about that “cinnamon chili.”

    Comment by Bomboniera — May 16, 2006 #

  7. I find it interesting that in India cinnamon is exclusivly seens as a savory spice – never as a sweet one, and never used in desserts. Of course their cinnamon is a little different, but not radically. In place of cinnamon used as the omnipresent sweet spice, it tends to be cardamom. Mmmmmmm….I love them both.

    And Cincinatti chili sounds very wierd. I grew up in PA, but never heard of it.

    Comment by Diane — May 16, 2006 #

  8. Well, since I a) don’t have a digital camera, and b) am too late to enter anyway, I can’t enter the Spice is Right roundup. But I can tell you that you inspired me to make a dish tonight with cinnamon as a savory – and I didn’t tell the hubby person what was in it until after he’d had a bite and decided he liked it.

    Had about 1/2 pound leftover baked chicken, which I cubed, and set aside. Chopped 1/2 a white onion, sauteed it in butter, then tossed in some (probably about a tsp) of cinnamon, and a dash or two of cayenne. Tossed the chicken and some garlic into the pan and cooked until warm. Scraped out the pan and set the chicken mix aside – deglazed the pan with 2 ice cubes’ worth of white wine, then about 1 c. 2% milk – put the chicken back in the pan and heated over medium till slightly thickened. Toss with pasta and serve immediately.

    It was a hit, and we have leftovers for tomorrow.

    Comment by Kymster — May 17, 2006 #

  9. Your idea to have “green” with mint kabobs was so tantalizing that we are having mint kabobs, a slightly different green than yours, basmati rice, dahl and a green vegetable for tonight’s dinner.

    I just tasted the green – made with coriander leaves, mint, green chillies, onion, salt, sugar and cider vinegar. While it’s not the same as yours, it’s killer good!!

    And thanks to your post, we’ve added cinnamon and toasted besan flour to the meat mixture too! Ooooh, is it time for dinner yet?

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — May 17, 2006 #

  10. Paul and Sakitome–I am glad to know that I am not the only fan of cinnamon toast out in the world!

    The tomato and cinnamon combination sounds odd, but it really works well together, especially when there are other spices in the mixture, Sakitome. I am now very fond of cinnamon in curries and Indian foods especially, and in real stifado.

    Elizabeth–I need to get a copy of that book–I love their books. Mint is delicious in kebab. I also use mint in little Greek lamb patties–they have a bit of garlic, black pepper, mint, and lemon zest, all ground/minced up together, with some Aleppo pepper flakes for the tiniest hit of heat. I make little patties out of them, roll them in fresh bread crumbs and fry them in olive oil.

    Oh, are they good! Especially if I make tzazaki sauce for them.

    Lucette–I am the same way. I am friendlier about Cinci chili now that I know the origin story–but only in theory. In actuality, I still dislike it intensely.

    Bomboneira–I don’t remember if there is chocolate in it or not. I just know I don’t like it.

    Now, that butternut squash business sounds interesting, though. But it is odd how people, when unaccustomed to having cinnamon in savory food can sometimes pick it out from all the flavors even if there is just a little bit in it. That is how it struck me the first time, too.

    Diane–it is pretty much a southern Ohio thing. Skyline is all over the country, though. But yeah, we knew about it in West Virginia, but I have no idea why. Weird stuff, yeah.

    Kymster–that sounds really, really good. And you used leftovers in it too! Rock on! (I am all about creative use of leftovers!)

    Elizabeth–isn’t green the best stuff? I love it!

    Comment by Barbara — May 17, 2006 #

  11. There are just too many dishes in this round-up that I want to try out and this one is another one. Thanks for hosting!

    Comment by Macky — May 18, 2006 #

  12. You are welcome, Mackey, and thanks for playing both rounds! I hope you come back for the third round.

    And if you try these kebab and the green chutney, let me know what you think of them!

    Comment by Barbara — May 18, 2006 #

  13. I’ll have to see if I can find that recipe. It’s been years. The family was SO strongly opposed to “cinnamon chili” that I think I just stopped making it.

    Comment by Bomboniera — May 19, 2006 #

  14. [...] After reading about Barbara’s (Tigers and Strawberries) “green“, we were inspired to make some mint chutney of our own. The first one that we made, we added sugar and after tasting it, decided that the sugar was unnecessary. It was still really good but the onion and cider vinegar lend enough sweetness. [...]

    Pingback by blog from OUR kitchen » Too much mint? Impossible!... we adore good food — May 28, 2006 #

  15. Barbara I love the sound of the green chutney!! Thanks for sharing this.

    Comment by kalyn — May 29, 2006 #

  16. Try it Kalyn! Try it–it is SOOOO good!

    Have you ever had chimichurri? It is similar to that South American sauce. Very good. Very green. Very, very refreshing and tasty on or with any number of good things to eat!

    Comment by Barbara — June 2, 2006 #

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