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The Importance of Cinnamon

by Ruth Knafo Setton

My mother gestures toward her salads: a kaleidoscope of colors, spices, textures. “Mix the unexpected,” she says. “Jam made from sweet baby eggplants and walnuts, tagines simmered with saffron and za’atar. And ma fille, remember the importance of cinnamon.”

Photograph: My mother and me

I used to roll my eyes when my mother invoked cinnamon as the miracle wonder spice. Then I heard myself telling my children to sprinkle cinnamon in everything from coffee to chili to meat and couscous and desserts, and add it to a spoon of honey to cure colds, and saw them roll their eyes—and realized not only that I’m much more like my mother than I thought, but that cinnamon is much more than a spice.

Photograph: Old Safi, my birth town

Greek historian Herodotus mentions cinnamon in discussing spices from Arabia:

“Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon. Where the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell—only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country in which Bacchus was brought up. Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests.”

I love the image of a great cinnamon bird carrying the sticks from land to land.

Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm, medieval healers to cure sore throats and insect bites, and chefs all over the world use it to preserve meat. As a sign of remorse, Nero ordered a year’s supply of cinnamon to be burned after he murdered his wife. Scientists have found it to be the most effective plant extract in treating HIV-1 and HIV-2. From death to life-force, this little tube, this sweet wood stick, is so potent wars were fought over it. Since its discovery it’s been used as an aphrodisiac, usually sprinkled into dishes, but in one of my stories a woman goes to the spice market, dips her hands into a bag of cinnamon and rubs the grains over her fingers, wrists and throat before going to meet her lover. In another story, cinnamon is the primary ingredient in a love spell.

Photograph: Spices in the souk

Many Moroccan sweets use cinnamon, including mentecaos, biscoches, serpent cake, charoset, and walnut cake, but my favorite thing about Moroccan food is the imaginative way chefs bridge sweet and savory—what I call the “dash” of Sephardic cooking. Instead of a “period” that separates entrée from dessert, a Moroccan meal delights in infusing salt-spicy foods with orange blossom water and honeyed syrup.

Photograph: Me in Marrakesh

I grew up eating spicy Moroccan soup harira, chicken cooked with olives and dates, and meatballs with raisins and candied onions—all seasoned with cinnamon. My sister-in-law makes a delightful minced fish kebab using a cinnamon stick as a skewer. The centerpiece of Moroccan cuisine, bsteeya, interweaves spices and textures in an exquisite mixture of chicken (which Jews use, Arabs cook it with pheasant), eggs, and almonds baked in flaky pastry dough like a great pie topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

For me, cinnamon is not only the dash that connects sweet and savory, it also bridges past and present. Often, in another country, on a street I’ve never been, I turn the corner and breathe my Proustian madeleine—sharp and pungent, almost unbearably sweet. I close my eyes and see my mother as a little girl walking with her family to the beach in Safi—the town where I was born—on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Her mother has cooked the traditional dafina—eggs in their shells, meat, potatoes, chickpeas, raisins or dates. The family spreads blankets on the heavy golden sand. While birds shriek and Atlantic wind blows, her mother opens the pot, releasing wonderful fragrances—a mix of garlic, cumin, coriander, chili flakes, cardamom, and brown sugar.

Photograph: My mother’s family in the salon arabe

My mother waits impatiently for the most exciting part. Her mother unties the cheesecloth in which rice—scented with cinnamon and saffron—has cooked overnight. The scent escapes in the air, and is immediately caught in the beak of a great cinnamon bird who carries it across the ocean to the Atlantic coast of the United States, where I open my hands and rub it between my palms and on my throat… and breathe in memories of a now-vanished world.

No, Mom, I’ll never forget the importance of cinnamon.

There are as many recipes for couscous, the Moroccan national dish, as there are Moroccan cooks. This recipe by my mother, Rosine Knafo, creatively and subtly bridges influences from Old World and New, and of course, sweet and savory. It is my comfort food and has become my children’s as well.


Sweet Potato & Almond Couscous

(serves 4)

4 large sweet potatoes, chopped in four pieces each 2 cups couscous

1 (14 oz.) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed 1 ½ large Spanish onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped 2 cups carrots, scraped, cut in 2-in. lengths

2 zucchinis, cut in 2-in. lengths (1 cup celery may be substituted)

1 red pepper, cored and cut in spears

4 Tblsp. olive oil 1 cup raisins

½ cup sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp paprika

½ tsp ginger

salt & pepper to taste

* 1 cup toasted almond slivers: To toast almonds, spread in an ungreased baking pan. Place in 350-degree oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes or until almonds are light brown; stir once or twice to ensure even browning. Note that almonds will continue to brown slightly after removing from oven.

1. In heavy saucepan, saute onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add carrots, zucchini and red pepper. Saute gently.

2. After a few minutes, add sweet potatoes, chickpeas, raisins, sugar and spices. Add 1 ½ quarts water. Bring to a boil. Immediately lower heat and cover. Cook for 25 – 30 minutes on low-medium heat. Set aside and let cool.

*This part of the recipe can be prepared in advance. If you are going to set it aside until the following day, then let it cool before refrigerating.

3. After the sweet potato mixture cools, drain and reserve the vegetable stock. Boil 2 cups of the liquid (or as much as you need for the amount of couscous you will prepare). *Note: for each cup couscous, add 1 cup stock. Pour boiling liquid over couscous. Let stand for about 5 minutes until couscous is tender.

4. In serving dish spread couscous, sifting with fork. Spoon sweet potato mixture over the couscous. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and cinnamon. Serve hot.

If you like this recipe, check out Rosina’s Moroccan Cuisine, my mother’s cookbook.

Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez. She is a multi-genre author whose award-winning fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies. She teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University and on Semester at Sea. She can be contacted at:

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