Cashew Tree

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 injured, sickened, or killed someone else.

Among the myriad foods that fall into the “who tried it second” category are cashews. Cashews, native to South America (probably northeast Brazil), 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 in industry, to create plastics, or as a pesticide.

Of course, not everyone goes for the bastioned nut. In some countries, the cashew apple is valued. You see, the cashew has an odd, two-part, fruit: a somewhat pear-shaped “apple” and, projecting from the end of the apple, the nut, looking rather like an afterthought. 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 are remarkably high in vitamin C and are quite tasty, if you can find them (cashew apples, also occasionally called cashew fruit, are not commonly consumed outside of South America and Asia, but they are sometimes available through fair trade organizations). However, the cashew apple is generally left to rot or be eaten by animals, and the hard-shelled, caustic nut 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. (For example, the Thai for cashew, mamuang, is closer to the Spanish.)

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 probably 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—and, in fact, I took the photo at the top of this page while visiting southern India. India 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.

Copyright ©2010 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Nutrition, Thoughts

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