A touch of cinnamon

A touch of cinnamon

What brings back the memories most powerfully? Sight or sound? An old photograph which captures a moment long gone by striking your head with flashbacks. A tune that travels you directly back to your youth. Or it might be a taste? Will that be enough? Perhaps the smell of a favorite food or of a spice? Or may be just a touch of cinnamon?

What if you cannot see or hear, or deprived of both senses, suffering from Usher syndrome? Indian author Vikas Prakash Joshi tells us a touching story about an adopted child, who is diagnosed with Usher syndrome, eventually destined to go deafblind, and his encounter with his birthparents for the first time to see their faces and hear their voices, so that he can remember them.

Cimmanum is the nickname of the young child. His story is told laced with smells and flavors of food in India, colorfully depicted, making the reader to delve into the wonders of Indian cuisine. One almost feels the smells of spices, especially the unmistakable smell of cinnamon in between the lines, apparently because of the nickname of the protagonist. But we understand the boy detests its name, perhaps intuitively he knows that smelling cinnamon will be the only sense that will link him to his memories in his doomed future. He is desperate to change his nickname, as if trying to change his fate.

“How did you get the nickname Cimmanum? Everyone calls you that.”

“My parents love to add cinnamon to everything. In tea, cakes, pastries, rolls everything. I couldn’t pronounce the word Cinnamon so they dubbed me ‘Cimmanum.’ He frowned. “I don’t like my nickname anymore. I want to change it.”

How I knew about the book is another story. Vikas is a keen reader of this column, scrutinizing every article of mine, with very to-the-point comments. The articles of mine he favors most often turn out to be my own favorites too. He kindly sent me the copy of “My Name is Cimmanum” for my review, as he thought there was a great deal of food involved in the story, tastes and flavors of India wonderfully woven into the fabric of the story.

This story led me to think about the taste and smell of cinnamon once again with another eye. It was one of the most prestigious spices in Byzantine Istanbul. The noble and the elite would carry their cinnamon in tiny wooden ornate boxes and bring out and sprinkle a pinch to their food to show off and display their wealth. It was a status symbol for sure, and it ended up on every food, not only on desserts, but also on fish, poultry and meat dishes, and of course on Lenten dishes made with copious amounts of onions and olive oil. The use of cinnamon passed on to Ottoman culture surviving still in today’s Turkish cuisine. Today we use cinnamon in olive oil-based dolma and sarma dishes, it sneaks into meatballs, sometimes to meat and chicken dishes as a legacy of Ottoman cuisine, but definitely it is ever-present on milk puddings. As Americans cannot think of apple pie without cinnamon, we, in Turkey cannot think of any sweet taste made with milk without cinnamon. And, of course, a pinch of cinnamon is always present on our much-loved winter drinks boza and salep. The first one an acquired taste for foreigners, a fermented millet drink, sort of a liquidized tart thick runny pudding, the latter a foamy heart-warming thick milk drink made with wild orchid roots. Both are quintessentially served with cinnamon, hence, a whiff of cinnamon is mostly associated with these soul building, comfort drinks.

The Turkish name of cinnamon is “tarçın”, or “darçın” in Ottoman Turkish, indicating that it was thought as a spice coming from China. My favorite source of spices, Gernot Katzer’s spice pages give a thorough explanation about the etymology of tarçın. Here is an excerpt from his cinnamon page.

“In Central Asia to North India, cinnamon was traditionally imported from China. Local languages do not distinguish between Chinese and other types of cinnamon, but employ the same name for all cinnamon types: Bengali darchini, Hindi dal chini, Punjabi dal chini, Pashto dol chini, and Farsi darchin [thence Armenian darchin] all mean Chinese wood. The name was transferred to a number of unrelated languages: Turkish tarçın, Turkmen dalçyn, Azerbaijani darçın, Kazakh darshin, Arabic ad-darsin and Georgian darichini In these languages, the speakers are usually not aware of the literal meaning, as the element dar has no connection with wood [in Arabic, it happens to mean country]. Also, the association with China is not felt, and often obscured by sound changes or orthography, and in Turkish, the name of China has a different vowel [Çin] because of the vowel harmony imposed on the Persian loanword.”

Just a word brings one to embark on a voyage through countries, cultures and cuisines. A whiff of cinnamon may fly you to a memory, or as in this case, to places you’ve never been, but feel strangely close to, perhaps with the magic touch of that pinch of cinnamon. A touch of cinnamon unites us all. “My Name is Cimmanum” is heartwarming like a rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon, a deeply touching story to savor and remember.