Ceylon Cinnamon

Along the sunny coastal belt of Southern Sri Lanka, one will find acres of fields of thin and brown rich cinnamon bark growing in bunches. Cinnamon groves have been growing on these lands for centuries, following an extensive history of exports and colonialization, proving the significance of cinnamon to the Sri Lankan communities. The light brown quills and peeled bark harvested during monsoon are native to the pearl of the Indian Ocean, not only for its use and cultivation, but for the unique and distinct skill of cinnamon peeling that have been passed down through the lineage of many Sri Lankan families and communities, making it a farmer’s bread and butter. From cinnamon tea to cinnamon in Sri Lankan curries, the spice is a significant component of the culture and culinary trade. However, over the years the art of cinnamon peeling has slowly been forgotten as it trickles down into an evolving society and today only very few families and farms carry the trade. In exploring the significance of cinnamon to the Sri Lankan people and its communities, we travel along the timeline and history of Ceylon.

Two types of cinnamon is largely famous across the Western market – Ceylon Cinnamon, named after the colonisation of the island, and Cassia produced more commonly in other Asian countries including China, and Indonesia. The Ceylon Cinnamon, above anything else is known to be the ‘sweet cinnamon’ or the ‘true cinnamon’. Ceylon Cinnamon possesses a lush, alluring aroma and a sweet taste with light brown, soft quills. In February, Ceylon Cinnamon received the protected designations of origin and Protected Geographical Indications, as a result of a long, arduous endeavour by the Sri Lanka Export Development Board. This achievement will help the island’s trade system by increasing exports and protecting its name in the international market, differentiating it from lower value cinnamon powder. The significance of this distinction comes from the cinnamon’s golden yellow to light brown colour, smooth skin, thin bark, and sweeter taste. These characteristics of cinnamon are maintained by the cinnamon farmers of the island, who throughout the years of experience of the skill, peel down the bark to its uniform thickness, layering and rolling it to look like a cigar.

Cinnamon peeling and assembling is an age-old tradition that has been passed down through time; a peeler sits on the floor, an array of his peeling tools settled on the side. The skilled peeler then scrapes the rough outer peel of the stem, rubbing down the inner bark using a brass rod to smoothen the surface and loosen the hard bark from wood. With dexterous precision, the peeler slits two parallel nicks on the treated stick and carves out the softer inner layer of the bark in one piece without damaging or breaking the bark. Layers of these cinnamon quills are left to ferment for a day before air-drying them inside on tall racks for four to seven days. When dried, the cinnamon quills curl into what we consume – light brown, or golden cinnamon cigar-like rolls, trimmed to specific lengths and shipped to the international regions. The importance of representing the true Ceylon Cinnamon is derived from its rich cultural history. It carries the DNA of many cultures, arriving from the Arabs, capitalised on by the Dutch.

Cinnamon was largely produced and consumed in the period of BC, known at the time as a luxurious spice. Records show that Arab merchants traded Ceylon Cinnamon to Europe, making the island an important region in the Indian Ocean trade. During the tumultuous times of colonisation by the Dutch and Portuguese, the local people and communities were used to peel cinnamon for the European market as slaves. Due to the excessive cultivation of cinnamon, slowly, the groves declined in numbers causing the Dutch to cultivate more. 609 million cinnamons trees were grown by 1794 in the Southwest of Sri Lanka. However, during the British rule, importance shifted to tea and coffee crops, once again causing a decline in cinnamon farms. Thus, as time wore on, the art of cinnamon peeling became lost and known to only a few as they pass it along to their children. So, the generational craft continues in few communities, cinnamon plantations now a tourist destination where cinnamon peelers offer cinnamon tea and continue to share the story of the rich historical and cultural significance. Cinnamon has a distinct flavour, reflective of the island it grows on, strong and potent yet sweet and aromatic.  

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10th March, 2022 Culinary Art