Mexican cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), actually the bark of a tree, is a type of cinnamon from Sri Lanka called Ceylon, but known as canela in Mexico. It is often considered “true” cinnamon, whereas the relative cassia, a much more widely marketed cinnamon common in the United States, is a native of Indonesia and has a harsher flavor. Canela is much softer and flakier than cassia as well, and is easier to grind into a fine powder. In fact, it will crumble between your fingers.
Cinnamon is used for both sweet and savory dishes in Mexico, and is often added to tomato sauces. It is found also in many moles, as well as being an integral ingredient in Mexican hot chocolate.
Often, when cassia is used, such as in Tex-Mex dishes, or chili, to mimic Mexican flavors, the result is overpowering due the the stronger, harsher flavor, so, it is best to use canela for Mexican dishes or for Mexican or Latin flavors. If you must use regular ground cinnamon (Cassia or Cinnamomum aromaticum) for a Mexican recipe, use about half the amount as you would for canela.
Buy Mexican or Ceylon Cinnamon
Mexican cinnamon is easily found in Latin markets or you can order it online, such as Badia Cinnamon Sticks. In Mexico, it is usually found in stick form but can also be purchased ground. Whole sticks will last longer and since they are easy to grind into a powder, this should be no problem for most cooks. A clean coffee grinder, spice grinder, or mortar and pestle, or molcajete will work perfectly.
Alternatively, look for Ceylon cinnamon, which may be available in ground form in well-stocked grocery stores or specialty markets. You can use canela Mexican or Ceylon cinnamon in place of Cassia cinnamon (regular cinnamon found most often ground in grocery store spice aisles). There is no need to have both and many consider canela to be superior.
Ceylon cinnamon or canela is native to Sri Lanka and the southwest coast of India. It it now cultivated in Mexico in places such as Puebla, Veracruz, Tabasco. As well, it is cultivated in the West Indies and islands of the east coast of Africa.
See also: Mexican Cooking Terms
Mexican Cinnamon image © Diana Taliun