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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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12.06.07

Cashews

Food History


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Do you remember reading history or anthropology books that described how indigenous groups had learned how to make poisonous foods edible? Those reports always made me wonder what the learning curve was like and how hungry you’d have to be to try something a second time, after the first try burned, sickened, or killed someone else?

Among the myriad foods that fall into the “who tried it second” category are cashews. Native to South America (probably northeast Brazil), they are related to poison ivy and poison sumac. The nut is encased in an extremely hard shell that contains a toxic, caustic liquid that is sufficiently corrosive that in some cultures it is used for burning off warts. Even today, it is commonly used as a pesticide or in industry, to create plastics.

Of course, not everyone goes for the bastioned nut. The cashew nut projects out of the end of a somewhat pear-shaped “apple,” and in some countries, it is this “cashew fruit” that is valued. In truth, it’s a false fruit, really just the swollen stalk of the nut. But false or not, it’s sweet, tender, remarkably high in vitamin C, and quite tasty. A ripe cashew apple will spoil within a day if kept at room temperature, so it is most often dried, candied, or preserved in syrup. Cashew apples, also called cashew fruit, are not commonly consumed outside of the areas in South America and Asia where they grow, but they are sometimes available through fair trade organizations, should you wish to try them. However, in areas where the nut is prized, the cashew apple is generally left to rot or be eaten by animals, and only the apple’s hard-shelled, caustic appendage is harvested.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much in the way of technology to make the nut viable. All that is really required is fire, though even here, it’s not simply a matter of getting the nuts hot. Roasting the nuts whole in a hot fire makes the shells break open, and the caustic fluid spills out and bursts into flame, releasing fumes that can injure the eyes or skin. More sophisticated methods roast the nuts slowly in glowing embers, causing the poison to be dispelled without the fumes, and the weakened shells are then cracked open by hand. (So it’s not just who tried the nut second, after the first person to pick one had his skin burned off. It’s also who tried it third, after someone was blinded by the fumes of burning cashew fluid.)

By the time French, Dutch, and Portuguese explorers encountered the cashew, the indigenous people of Brazil had figured all this stuff out and had a reliable way of processing cashews without too much worry of personal injury. A globetrotting French naturalist named André Thevet was the first to describe the plant and the method of roasting the nuts to make them edible. Europeans made a point of learning how this worked.

The Portuguese picked up the name the Brazilian Tupi had for the nut—acaju—and shortened it to caju. From cashew in the US to kaju in India, in most (but not all) places you find this nut today, you’ll be able to see the linguistic connection to the original Tupi. In the places where you don’t encounter something related to caju, you’ll probably run into something related to the Spanish maranon, which may be derived from one of the first regions where the fruit was seen, the State of Maranhao in northern Brazil.

The Portuguese and Spanish carried cashews off to their various colonies in the late 1500s. The Portuguese headed for East Africa and India, and the Spanish, for the Philippines. From India, and the Philippines, cashews spread into Southeast Asia. From East Africa, they spread to West. The cashew really took off everywhere that met its need for heat and humidity. Cashews now grow in most of the world’s tropical countries, and are grown commercially in 32 of those countries.

India is the world’s leading producer of cashews. It is also one of the world’s leading consumers of cashews. Vietnam, Brazil, and Tanzania are the next big cashew growers, followed by Kenya, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Thailand. Mozambique used to be number one, but with independence came a loss of government protection, and Mozambique ceased to be the premier player. The major importers are the U.S., European Union, China, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Cashews are the third most important tree nut on world markets.

One Comment on "Cashews"

Heidi

I was just thinking about this. I was at Zapatista this past week and I saw a picture of an ear of corn cover with Cuitlacochen and I thought: what was anyone thinking eating that?! This fungus is not very attractive looking and it looks just plain dangerous. Nevertheless, thank the cooking gods someone did and now we have some great tasty food.

I actually think about this stuff every time I see a show or news program about meth, who was so out of their mind (and not dead) to think rat poison, antifreeze and god knows what else could be a good idea…



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