Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Tough Nut to Crack

My recent trip to Auroville was very fruitful, quite literally. With summer fruits abounding, people freely offered us many fruits. Freebie fruits earned were: Jackfruit, Papaya and Cashew nuts. But this post is mostly about cashew nuts.
Cashew Nuts
Auroville, is dotted with many organic farms that grow cashew nuts, among other things. With the recent media attention on the deadly endosulphan usage on cashew nut trees, I believe Auroville's cashews are prized nuts. But in Auroville, they do not seem to think so; cashew nuts strewn on the road, probably never to be picked, were a common sight.  With the realization that the fallen fruit would probably rot, I picked up a handful.
Cashew Fruit and Flowers

Now for some facts. There are two parts to the cashew fruit: the soft cashew apple and the hard cashew nut. The actual cashew kernel that we eat is the "seed " found inside a hard shell. In Goa, the cashew apple pulp is fermented to make a drink called "Feni". Though cashew nuts are relished all over the world, cashew apples are not so popular, in part because they aren't easily transportable. Vietnam, India and Brazil are the top cashew producers. 
Red Ripe Cashew Apple

I've never cracked open cashew nuts before so I called my mother. Having grown up in a house full of cashew trees, she knows how to extract them. She explained to me the traditional method of roasting them. All the fallen cashew nuts are picked up, usually by kids and placed in a pile of palm leaves. The pile is then lit and an adult turns the cashews around constantly with a long stick, to avoid scorching them. Strict adult supervision is needed as an oil is released; this oil is rather toxic and can easily catch fire. Cashew Nut Shell Liquid (CNSL) is a highly  allergenic oil that can cause severe, even life-threatening reactions.
Cashew Nuts
My Cashew Kernel Extraction Kit
Since I had only a handful of cashews I decided to crack them. Yet, even this exercise had to be performed outdoors with due care. With gloves and  glasses  I made sure I avoided any contact with the toxic CNSL. The fruits of my labour are crushed cashew nuts, which I will roast (to get rid of the toxic oil) and probably add to some Kheer. Perhaps, drying the nuts before I cracked them would have resulted in whole kernels. Still, I can console myself with the thought, that more experience doesn't necessarily yield whole cashews. The reason why we have different grades of cashews in our shops: full, half and broken, is that cashew kernels are not easy to extract, even by experts.
Tough Nuts to Crack: Crushed Cashew Nuts
There is another nut tree in our building complex: the Almond Tree. The almond, unlike cashew is safe to handle and far easier to extract. Here is a picture of a half-hearted attempt at cracking an almond. My little boy loves these nut extraction activities and wants to "grow big" to be able to do it himself.
Fresh Almonds
Here is another picture. Though it does look like a nut, it is the tangy Tamarind; another fruit I rescued from the ground.The tamarind shell breaks easily with just a little pressure. Even a kid can do this, which is nice because tart tamarind is a hit with children.
Tamarind from the Tree
Tamarind is derived from Arabic "Tamar-E-Hind" literally meaning Dates from India. Tamarind is used almost daily in South Indian cooking. In fact, India is both the largest producer and consumer of Tamarind in the world. 
Tamarind: Fruit, Seed and Shell


  1. It's interesting to see what cashews look like before they're roasted, sort of grub like and unappetizing. It's a good thing they aren't sold that way! Love your blog by the way, I'll be back.

  2. A fascinating post Anita! I've seen Cashews growing before, in Brazil and Kenya. They are perhaps my favourite nut. Re the Almonds - don't forget that unripe Almonds are incrredibly bitter - in fact I think they are probably poisonous, aren't they? Never knew the origin of the name "Tamarind", so I have learned something new from you again. Thanks.

  3. Yes Mark, bitter almonds have some cyanide component in them, so they're rather poisonous. On 2nd thoughts, i realise my earlier almonds picture could mislead some reader into eating raw almonds so I've cropped the green almond from that picture. Thank you Mark and Adele for your comments.

  4. I really didn't know that cashew nuts were so tough to crack. Next time I have them I'll remember the process...certainly not easy!

    Thanks for mentioning the origin of the word "Tamarind". I had told my husband to take a lot of pictures in Pondicherry and he got some tamarind photos too. Honestly, I didn't think they were of the tamarind because the ones here look a little different. Now I know!

  5. And Kanak, I didn't know there were different kinds of tamarind. I only know the variety I have posted here.

  6. I did not know that cashew nut shell oil was toxic and that extracting the nut was so difficult. I learned something about tamarind from your photo. Interesting post.

  7. Growing up in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, USA we had tamarind. It's used in mexican cooking as well. :)