Mexican cinnamon refers to Cinnamomum verum, a variety of cinnamon often considered by bakers, gourmands, and consumers to be true cinnamon. Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several different species of trees and bushes from the Cinnamomum genus. These tropical evergreens are native to Southeast Asia. Mexican cinnamon specifically comes from Sri Lanka and is often labeled as Sri Lankan cinnamon or Ceylon, which is the former name of the island country. The spice is of major importance in Mexican cuisine, and the country is the largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon.
Cinnamon is made from peeling and drying the bark from the trees. As the cinnamon dries, the bark rolls up into the characteristic stick form. The bark can also be ground up or sold in powdered form. The spice is available in several different varieties. Often, however, all of these varieties are sold under the generic term of cinnamon, meaning those specifically looking to purchase Mexican cinnamon will need to be able to distinguish the spice from its close relatives.
In North America, what is commonly labeled as cinnamon is actually Cinnamomum aromaticum, also known as cassia. Cassia is a species of cinnamon native to China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The spice has a wider commercial availability than Ceylon and is cheaper to harvest, so it is often substituted for true cinnamon. Ceylon and cassia are often considered to be interchangeable but are easily distinguished due to their different flavor profiles and appearance.
Ceylon cinnamon sticks curl into spirals and are pale brown in color, with a soft, thin texture that is easy to grate or break up. This Mexican cinnamon also features a woody aroma and a delicate flavor that is sweet and warm, often with soft citrus notes. Cassia, however, is more pungent and spicy in flavor, with a slight bitterness that typically includes a harsher and more astringent smell. Cassia bark is normally reddish brown in color, and the cinnamon sticks tend to be coarser and thicker. As cassia dries, the bark also tends to curl up on both ends and leaves behind a hollow tube.
An extremely popular spice for cooking, cinnamon is commonly used for pastries, pies, and other sweets. One popular Mexican cinnamon desert enjoyed throughout the country is Mexican chocolate, which features whole cocoa beans ground with sugar and cinnamon. The fine chocolate is generally sold in flat, round disks that can be broken into pieces and melted to make various dishes, such as flan. It is also popularly used to prepare Mexican hot chocolate, a frothy drink made with warmed milk.
As Mexican cinnamon is less robustly flavored than cassia, its flavor is versatile enough to suit savory dishes such as chili and mole sauces. Many Middle Eastern dishes, including curries and lamb dishes, also use cinnamon as a primary ingredient. To add flavor, Mexican cinnamon sticks can be swizzled in tea, coffee, and other hot drinks.
Outside of North America, the more refined and expensive Mexican cinnamon is the preferred spice. In most North American grocery stores, however, it may be difficult to locate true cinnamon. To complicate matters, other varieties of cinnamon, such as Cinnamomum burmannii, a variety sometimes known as Korintje cinnamon, is also sold in the United States under the cinnamon label. Shopping online or through local spice markets can lead to finding Mexican cinnamon. Some local grocery stores may also carry the spice in the international section of the supermarket. Those looking among other Mexican spices may find the spice under the name canela, the Spanish word for cinnamon.