The story of a nut

I think only Malayalee’s and Goan’s would really enjoy the taste of a cashew fruit though everybody would know of and like the taste of the ever popular cashew nut. But the fruit, if chosen well from the bunch, is a revelation to the uninitiated - As you bite into the succulent juicy orange yellow colored fruit, you get that special sweet taste with that small raw & unripe ‘pull on the side’, like when you bite a raw mango.

At the base of the fruit hangs the popular kidney shaped nut, and this is one of those rare fruits with the seed outside - or is it a fruit in the first place? No it is not!! This good looking fruit is not technically a fruit at all but a swollen stalk. I am sure many of you would have tried fenny from Goa which is a beverage (with a solid kick, like one you get from an Arabian hose - when properly fermented & drunk – now don’t ask me if I got kicked by an Arabian horse, it is only my well thought out metaphor) made from this fruit. Many people state that the fruit itself is scarcely edible, having an unripe flavor but I think they are wrong, or for that matter it could be an acquired taste for Malayalee’s and Goan’s.

The cashew apple or ‘Kashumanga’ may be consumed fresh, and contains high quantities of tannins which are the cause for the slight bitter taste and a dry mouth feel. But here is some more about the nut, a nut that we got in return for all the Portuguese plunder of Malabar. Like the great historian & politician KM Panikkar said in his ‘Survey of Indian History’,‘There is a very little to recommend the Portuguese from any point of view’, but in his book ‘Malabar & the Portuguese’, RC Temple adds in his foreword – They however did immense good for the country by introducing new products such as cashew and tobacco and modernizing the cultivation of coconut and the ‘coir’ trade.

After the Portuguese invaded Brazil in the 1500's, Portuguese seamen brought the seeds of the cashew nut tree from Brazil to be planted by the early settlers along the east coast of Africa. The trees took root and thrived. It was not long before cashew trees were growing wild along the entire coast of Mozambique. The spread of these trees later stretched to Kenya and Tanzania. Uncared for and uncultivated, the ripe nuts were harvested by the natives of Africa. Later, they were sold to the Portuguese traders who in turn disposed of them to merchants who then shipped the nuts to India where they were shelled. Thus started a fledgling industry which grew over centuries to become a thriving global affair.

The word ‘cashew’ itself has many purported origins. Some say it was sold on the beaches, at 8 per coin or ‘cashu’ a term for the old currency in Malabar. So it became ‘cashinettu’ and thence cashew nut. But the nut that has a botanical term ‘Anacardium occidentale’ owes its name actually to the Tupi-Indian word Acaju and is a native of South America. So is it cultivated in South America? The cashew tree grows in Central and South America, the West Indies, East Africa, and India (from which the U.S. imports 64% of its supply)

Well if that was so, why do most cashew nut tins you buy state origin from ‘India’? It was due to its popularization in Kerala by the Portuguese and in Kerala it is incidentally known as Parangi Andi. In jest I can say, we are simple people who never deny credit, even to the enemy.

Any idea how the nut reaches your table? The nut is first of all detached and sun-dried. Before it can be eaten, there are two shells and a skin that must be removed. The outer shell contains poisonous oils that can blister the skin; it was even believed in old times that uncooked cashew nuts were poisonous. However, the shell oil does not in any way contaminate the raw nut. To remove this shell, and to get rid of this oil, the nuts are either placed among burning logs until the oil catches fire (the fumes of which are injurious to the eyes and skin) or put in modern roasting cylinders. Later, the inner shells are cracked open, also by hand, and the kernels heated to remove the skins. Oil from cashew nut shells is used in insecticides, brake linings (WOW!), and rubber and plastic manufacture. The milky sap from the tree is used to make a varnish.

The book The world cashew industry – an Indian perspective,’ authored by J. Rajmohan Pillai and P. Shanta, unravels the stories of ‘the poor man’s crop and the rich man’s food. “Not many of us know that Keralite’s are the pioneers of the cashew industry in the country. It is believed that cashew was first discovered by the Portuguese travelers in Eastern Brazil. Brazilians devoured the fruit but discarded the nuts. It was again the Portuguese who brought cashew to Goa and planted it along the coast to check sea erosion. The country saw processing and trading of cashew kernels take off in Kollam, Mangalore and Vettapalem in Andhra Pradesh during the 1920s,” says Mr. Pillai.

In the course of this all, I came across a very interesting blog by Mathai Fenn, where he mentions thus - The Cashew Nut symbolizes "The Outsider" in a way that Albert Camus could only dream of. There is a story that illustrates this. The story says that God had completed his work of creation. He surveyed all he had done and saw it was good. It was at that point that the Cashew came to God and told him that he forgot to give the Cashew a seed. It was too late to do major surgery, so God stuck a nut OUTSIDE the fruit. Hence the Cashew Nut is an outsider even on its own tree.....Interesting indeed..

And of course, Qulion is the cashew city of Kerala. Cashew processing factories are so much woven in to the life of Kollam that a sizable population find their daily bread from it. From two factories in 1933, It became many hundreds and cashew kings, barons and cashew magnates emerged from these areas. Thus it started, in the 17th century by the Portuguese, in small gardens, quickly spreading into the wild and becoming a staple crop (if one could say so) to the people of South Travancore, especially Quilon. Despite its early introduction the commercial value of the cashew- nut was discovered only in the nineteen twenties. India exports about 2500 Crores of Rupees worth of cashews every year and is the biggest exporter. Vietnam & Nigeria produce more, but I wondered what they do with it. A little checking made it clear, much of the African nuts land up for processing (low labor cost) in Kerala and are thence re-exported! And the very interesting fact of this business is that virtually all Cashew workers, especially shellers are women. When somebody raised the question, the answer was – There have never been any men in the shelling, peeling or grading section, they do not have the patience and are absolutely unfit for the job! Men are only engaged in roasting, head loading and drying.

There is so much more, but I will leave that to the cashew businessman. The other crop introduced to Kerala by the Portuguese is Tobacco –Well, that really took root in Kerala, it is stated that the highest concentration of smokers is in Kerala – smoking traditionally the “Scissors’ brand from Wills.

Some trivia about the nut & fruit.

Sadly the fruit which is as good as the nut is also called a false fruit, for it is a swollen stalk as explained earlier. But then, it is a country cousin of our mango tree! The milky sap from the tree is used to make varnish. It got its name Anacardium because of its heartlike shape

Cashew skin oil can possibly remove warts ( I read this somewhere, it may be true, but do not try it)

Cashew nut is a member of the poison ivy family. Now this could not be quite right. Some checking revealed that both have the same poisonous chemical resin Urushiol!!

The Brazilian cashew is the largest, softest and whitest cashew. Some find them sweeter or richer in taste. Cashews from India are smaller and crisper. They can be sweet, or bland. Indian cashews are supposedly more ivory like in color. Vietnam cashew pieces are quite sweet.

Most people think Cashews are high in calories & oil. Actually they are at the lower end of the spectrum of oils &calories. With no cholesterol, a rarity for such a tasty and pleasing treat, cashew nuts are a healthy fat food for heart patients. And because of their high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, they also help support healthy levels of low good (HDL) cholesterol. They are high in Magnesium and antioxidants. It also has Zinc, which helps with Vision & immunity. So go for that handful of unsalted cashews.

In November 2005, Filipino inventor Rolando dela Cruz won the gold medal for his "DeBCC" anti-cancer cream at the prestigious International Inventor's Forum in Nuremberg, Germany. The "DeBCC" cream, developed from cashew nuts and other local herbs, was chosen over 1,500 entries as the "most significant invention" of the year. According to Mr. dela Cruz, the cream was a simple answer to basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer worldwide. BCC affects around 800,000 Americans every year, according to the Skin Care Foundation. BCC also affects 500,000 Europeans and 190,000 Australians every year

ReferenceModernization and effeminization in India: Kerala cashew workers since 1930 -By Anna Lindberg, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

Images from Cashew India.


Kamini said...

Interesting! Funnily enough, I had just finished reading a post on cashews on Mr. Abraham Tharakan's blog before coming here - and lo and behold, another post on my favorite nut! Now my mouth is watering - but since you say that their calorie count is not that high, perhaps I can go ahead and indulge!

Unknown said...

Great post! I love the cashew fruit. We used to eat them in my grandparents' house in Mangalore but I haven't had a bite for some three decades! Must find out where it is available here in Mumbai. (We get tender cashews from Madh Island, so there must be fruits available too)

I found Goan fenny really strong! It burns all the way down and permeates your bodily odors for a very long time! But it does have a kick. I've always wondered if it would become a mellow and wellrounded beverage if someone should take the trouble of maturing it for a few years, like cognac.

P.N. Subramanian said...

Very interesting.I always had a notion that Cashew must be high in calories and hence unfit for heart patients.

Tarun Mitra said...

Interesting Post...being never given much thought to the fruit except the nut and feni. It was interesting to learn that like many other things it is one of the imported things which later got Indianized.

Indrani said...

I have tasted this fruit in my childhood days, not sure if I will bite in to one again. It used to leave the throat itchy.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

I thought much Cashew is found in Kannur-Kasargode districts as well,may be not as much as in Kollam :-)

The oil can be used on wood as a termiticide etc.


harimohan said...

the nuts used to be our hunt
( my cousins and me ) in childhood as we sold them in kilos to go for movies ,the fruit tangy and tart was addictive once in a while ,regarding the skin oil being used for warts shud be true as it would cauterise the wart

Maddy said...

Thanks kamini - That was sheer coincidence that Abe & I posted on the same topic on the same day!

Thanks PNS, Nikhil, Indrani, narendra, hari & Tarun

I have never seen the fruit sold on streets or shops..probably since it is not very popular..and it was a revelation for me too that it is not full of cholesterol and all the bad stuff..

My dad was crazy about the nuts and mom would keep him away from them as he was a heart patient.. wish i knew what i know now, could have probably changed all that..

Happy Kitten said...

both the posts were informative and even I thought Cashew nuts had more calorific value.... the smell of the roasting nuts is heavenly and as kids we have done much roasting during our holidays in Tvm.

luckily we get good quality of these nuts here in Kuwait..

Ashvin said...

Dear Nikhil, yes, in my father's ancestral properties in Kannur there were a lot of these trees and in fact the ripe fruits (we used to call them parangi manga) used to fall off and rot on the ground, for some strange reason they were not really harvested / sold.

Indrani, to avoid itchy throats the fruits were quartered and soaked in salt water for some time before eating, it worked.

Maddy said...

Ashvin - in jest, people may have thought that they would get parangi punnu...I assume you know what that is..

I did not know that you put it in salt water, we used to just pick them up & eat them....

Unknown said...

Hi Maddy, I lost contact with you after my email ceased to operate from April last year. I need to subscribe to your Blog again. I have eaten enough of cashew apple and enjoyed the flavour. In my hometown Tellicherry and Cannanore/Kannur besides parangi manga it is called "prithikka-manga". Even this evening my friend in Tellicherry used this word. Do you know origin of that word please. Yet another question: At the thicker end (butt) of the cashew nut there is a tiny pointed protrusion. Any idea what it is called. Searching for an answer for several months. M.M.Mohan,Kochi.

Maddy said...

Hi Mohan,
Not sure about the origins of Pritikka manga, will check and revert. I know what you mean by the stalk at the butt end, again, no idea what it is called, but I know people use it to make Andi puttu..Let me check & revert