Growing up in Ohio, I never gave a second thought to cinnamon. I just accepted it as a fact of life: toasted split-top wheat bread in the morning spread with butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon-sugar. At that point in my life, spices came in little red and white plastic bottles that lived forever on the lazy susan in the kitchen cupboard.
As an adult with my own kitchen, I tend to use spices a bit more, but I never stopped to think about where they come from — or how or where they grew. I couldn’t imagine a cinnamon tree any more than the good ship lollipop. The fact that cilantro and coriander came from – were – the same plant bewildered and mystified me. They were as different as night and day, like the twins on “The Patty Duke Show.”
“Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Barclay Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights. What a crazy pair! But they’re cousins, identical cousins all the way…”
And it was in Cathy’s haunt, Zanzibar, that I finally learned more about spices by visiting a spice plantation.
While that term might inspire images of rolling fields, hordes of employees and a stately manse, the reality was more jungle-like with a handful of young men awaiting visitors (including one up a coconut tree), a woman with a bucket of water balanced on her head, children racing around dirt paths, and chickens pecking the ground between spice plants and trees.
“We call them ‘spice chickens,'” our guide Mohammed told us. “When we cook them, we don’t need to add anything.”
He may have been joking; I’m not really sure. The fowl did live among spices — ginger and nutmeg, turmeric, and cinnamon. But to those of us with an untrained eye and unfamiliar with spices growing in the wild, they looked like run-of-the-mill plants and trees.
Mohammed started the tour by showing us a sprig of saffron, a few roots, and a melange of crushed green leaves in his cupped palms, and asking us to identify the plant that lent its color to yellow curry. I couldn’t place it until he brushed a bit of the root on my arm, leaving a thick yellow streak.
“Turmeric!” I cried.
We were confronted with more hands full of mashed up plants we couldn’t place — seeds, roots, and fruits that would eventually be dried, crushed, sent to line grocery store shelves, and find their way into our kitchens back home.
A thick vine dangling pods that look like green beans yields a spice used to flavor ice cream and cookies and just about everything sweet I’ve ever baked: vanilla. Chocolate is produced from an even bigger green pod, a melon-shaped berry that ages and turns brown before being split open to release its seeds.
Ginger root was easier to identify, but I never knew it was used to treat all manner of physical ailments from motion sickness and indigestion to high blood pressure and joint stiffness (not to mention its value as an aphrodisiac, something Mohammed was quick to point out).
He also told us that nutmeg had a similar effect on women, but we glossed over that to marvel at the fruit itself which was split open before us. With a pit like that of an avocado, but covered in glossy red lace known as mace, its beauty caught us all by surprise.
Tantalizing tidbits (Did you know tapioca could turn lethal if it isn’t planted correctly?) filled our morning as we rubbernecked our way through the plantation. And, at the end of the tour, we finally learned about the powdery stuff I sprinkled on toast before catching the bus to school.
The roots of the cinnamon tree are used in much the same way as camphor or menthol, and cinnamon sticks aren’t sticks at all, but “quills” — bark that has curled into itself as it dries. Sweet, spicy and fragrant, as much a part of my childhood as schoolwork, recess, and fighting with my little brother. Three decades later and halfway around the world, it still takes me home.
By Kristin Stadum — Follow her adventures on her personal blog.