A Man's Quest for Culinary Truths
Social entrepreneur Dr. Darin Gunesekera’s latest mission is the branding of Sri Lankan cinnamon internationally.
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.
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.
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.
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”.