Saturday, 19 March 2011

vivienne khoo

Once a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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A Man’s Quest for Culinary Truths
March 2, 2011
Special to asia!

Is that really cinnamon you’re using? Dr Darin Gunesekera is on a mission to make sure you get the real thing.


Several years ago Dr. Darin Gunesekera achieved the seemingly impossible: turning a slum into a condominium for the slum dwellers. Now the Ashoka Fellow and Yale graduate has switched his focus to elevating the status of cinnamon growers, improving the quality of the cinnamon produced in Sri Lanka and marketing it to the global community as true cinnamon.

Handing over bags of the spice during the interview with theasiamag, he pointed out the fineness of the paper-thin rolls. He explained he wanted to make it known globally that cinnamon from Sri Lanka is true cinnamon, and that cassia, from the same family, is a second-rate substitute that is cheaper and more readily available.

He elaborated, “Large companies are passing off cassia as cinnamon. The difference is that cassia is coarse and less fragrant than cinnamon.”

What is even more alarming is the fact that research posted on health websites has shown that cassia taken in large enough amounts can be bad for health. Apparently the relatively high coumarin content in cassia can pose a danger to heart patients who are on warfarin. Coumarin is a blood thinner like warfarin, so it would be like taking a double dose in effect. Internet research surfaced another consequence of taking too much cassia: liver damage.

Dr. Gunesekera has come up with a brand name for the cinnamon processed at the Sri Lankan factory he is a consultant with: Culinary Truths. Awkward though the name may be, it is in keeping with his aim to wipe out the sale of cassia under the name of cinnamon and establish the sale of true cinnamon universally.

He explained that, traditionally, cinnamon would be harvested and processed by poor rural folk who gave little thought to hygiene. According to him, these people were spurned by society because they smelt of the sulphur which they used to treat cinnamon.


In the past, cinnamon was prepared in squalid surroundings.

In the past, cinnamon was prepared in squalid surroundings.


With inferior cinnamon, chips are stuffed into a quill to add bulk.

With inferior cinnamon, chips are stuffed into a quill to add bulk.


Traditionally, cinnamon is treated with sulphur.

Traditionally, cinnamon is treated with sulphur.


As Advisor Chairman at Capital Markets for the Marginalized Inc., Wiros Lokh Institute, Dr. Gunesekera was able to help change various aspects of cinnamon production by persuading all the relevant parties to improve their standards and change some practices.

For example, a factory owner was persuaded to hire more female staff as they were more likely than men to use their salaries to improve the lives of their families. It used to be that cinnamon peeling was a male-only preserve. By and large the men would spend a substantial percentage of their pay on alcohol, so the employment of women had a good effect on society as a whole.

The factory is spic and span and all the workers wear face-masks and gloves when handling the spice so high standards of hygiene are maintained. Specially designed tools are used in the factory rather than the all-purpose knives used traditionally.

The final product is now being marketed by Dr. Gunesekera and other stakeholders. His pride in the product is evident during the interview.


Uniforms, university designed tools and workbenches show how professional cinnamon processing is at Culinary Truths.

Uniforms, university designed tools and workbenches show how professional cinnamon processing is at Culinary Truths.


Asked what inspired him, Dr Gunesekera said, “Ideas come to me suddenly. For example, I would be standing somewhere staring at something which puzzles me then a solution will come to mind.

“I am very keen on what is currently being taught now (in some universities). The approach is to put people into certain situations then analyse their actions and reactions. Social entrepreneurship is the business of the future.”

He said, “We carried this idea out ourselves. We sent students to live with cinnamon growers to see how to refine the process.”

When asked about the importance of the Ashoka connection in his work Dr. Gunesekera said, “Joining Ashoka is like joining the alumni association of a premier university. You get into a collegial group with members from many different disciplines and the one thing in common is that everyone has done something worthwhile so it is easy to talk to each other. And then there are a lot of people who are a great help. I got a pro bono lawyer so I was able to register the name ‘Culinary Truths’.”

If he had his way, cinnamon peelers would no longer be marginalised and impoverished, and the good reputation of Sri Lankan cinnamon would be established globally.

A taste test done by theasiamag showed that the cinnamon stick still yielded its flavour after three infusions with tea and was sweeter than a certain big name brand which Dr. Gunesekera had said was cassia masquerading as cinnamon.


 The final product: hygienically processed cinnamon.

The final product: hygienically processed cinnamon.


True Cinnamon

So just what is true cinnamon? Native to Sri Lanka and the Malabar Coast of India, true cinnamon is a commodity that has been traded widely since antiquity. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was once more valuable than gold. The dried inner bark of the cinnamomum zeylanicum tree, it is light brown with a sweet flavour and scent. It has always been in great demand.

Rome’s Emperor Nero commanded that cinnamon be used for his wife’s funeral pyre. In Egypt the spice was used for embalming and witchcraft. In medieval Europe, cinnamon was used for religious rites. Later it was the most profitable spice in the Dutch East India Company’s trade. It is used extensively in South-east Asia. Indonesians and Malaysians call it kayu manis or “sweet wood”.

Website Infolanka says the Sri Lanka cultivator harvests his main crop in the wet season, cutting the shoots close to the ground. The shoots are first scraped with a semicircular blade, then rubbed with a brass rod to loosen the bark. The bark is then split with a knife and peeled.

The peels are telescoped one into another forming a “quill” about 107 cm long and filled with trimmings of the same quality bark to maintain the cylindrical shape. After four or five days of drying, the quills are rolled on a board to tighten the filling and then left to dry in the sun.

Finally, they are bleached with sulphur dioxide and sorted into grades. A well-made cinnamon quill is a slim cane of uniform thickness, colour and quality, with edges neatly joined in a straight line end to end and looking like a tight roll of golden-brown, multi-ply paper. Chips are sold as medium-quality cinnamon for grinding into cinnamon powder, sold on its own or as “pudding spice” mixed with nutmeg, clove, cardamom, mace and allspice.

Cinnamon oil is used in food, liqueur, perfume and drugs.

Cinnamon goes into recipes for curries such as kormas and rendangs, and in the soup stock for the Vietnamese noodle dish pho. It is sprinkled on coffee, and lends its flavour to Western favourites such as gingerbread.

Click below to see a slideshow of cinnamon production then and now.


Socially Responsible Connoisseur Cinnamon: Liberating Cinnamon from Colonial and Neo Colonial Exploitation

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