What is the oldest spice used for cooking?
Cinnamon has long been depicted as the oldest spice known to man, recorded as an embalming agent for mummification in ancient Egypt, but was it the first seasoning utilized as a flavoring agent or is there another ingredient that can be considered the first spice used for cooking?
While we will never be able to answer that question with 100% certainty, we are able to make assumptions based on scientific findings of artifacts, recordings, and analyses of remains. That being the case, the oldest spice known to man could be found to be different today than it is 5 years down the road. What we can claim with absolute confidence is that cinnamon—both Ceylon and Cassia—have a storied history that is evidenced to predate even Biblical times.
The History of Cinnamon
Let’s take a deeper look at the history of cinnamon as a trade commodity, flavoring agent, and more.
When was Cinnamon first traded?
Both Cassia and Ceylon cinnamon varieties are thought to have been among the first spices to be traded, though not likely for culinary purposes. The spice trade dates back more than 4000 years ago, when frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, and other spices were known to be traded in southern Arabia, tales associated with cinnamon and cassia positioned these fragrant quills of dried barks as the crown jewel of the first spice trading, though. Arab traders “spread fantastic tales to the effect that cassia grew in shallow lakes guarded by winged animals and that cinnamon grew in deep glens infested with poisonous snakes.” These mythological stories were likely purposed to intrigue buyers and deter others from seeking out these phenomenal coveted spices.
Today, we would consider this to be merely clever marketing or maybe even the first conscious development of brand identity, and though these stories likely stemmed from the desire for financial security from a mere few, one thing is for sure; it solidified cinnamon’s position as a rare and highly desired product that people would be willing to pay considerable prices for. It is likely because of that positioning that Sri Lankan cinnamon and Saigon cinnamon were amongst the first spices to incite trading overseas (sometimes taking 5 years or more to reach their destinations).
When did mankind begin using spices to flavor food?
As mentioned previously, scientific evidence suggests a variety of spices used for culinary purposes today begin their notoriety as having medicinal, aromatic, and other purposes, but whether or not they were also being used in food at that time is unknown. One of the first proven flavoring agents recorded was actually mustard seeds, which were used to flavor food by hunters and gathers closer to 4000 BC, according to National Geographic. There is no viable evidence of any spice being used to alter the flavor of food and make other ingredients more palatable until 6100 years ago. Prior to that point in time, there is no record of any spice, cinnamon or otherwise being intentionally added for flavor, though there are assumptions that ingredients whose purpose was thought to be preservation were found to unintentionally enhance the flavor of foods for prehistoric mankind.
So is cinnamon the oldest spice known to man?
One thing is for sure. Cinnamon is an ancient spice that predates the recorded history of culinary applications of all spices. As such, it has been dubbed the “world’s oldest spice”, which may be a warranted title, knowing that because it was found to be included in Egyptian embalming recipes. Since we know that neither Chinese nor Sri Lankan cinnamon hail from Africa, we know these ingredients were intentionally traded for such purposes. In conclusion, it might be more accurate to say that cinnamon was the first spice sought after globally.