They’re the most decadent nut – creamy, addictive, great in a sauce – but wait until you hear their origin story.
All I want to do today is tell you how cashews are grown and harvested, because it’s actually mad. If you’ve never thought much about nuts, get ready for your mind to be blown.
The cashew nut is actually a seed, and grows inside a fruit on a tree – the cashew tree – which is native to South America. Let’s paint a mental picture. Imagine a large, squat, pear-shaped red or yellow courgette; this is called the “cashew apple”. It might look like the fruit of the tree (and is eaten and juiced as a sweet fruit), but actually it’s a bonus “accessory fruit”: the swollen stem that the true fruit dangles from.
The true fruit is a smaller, green, kidney-shaped fruit called the “drupe”, and each contains a single cashew nut. Walnuts, almonds, and pecans are also seeds from drupes. Amazingly, peaches, plums, and cherries are themselves drupes – we just focus our culinary attention on the fruit rather than their seeds.
In order to fetch the cashew nut from its drupe, you first need to remove the tough shell, which is full of liquid anacardic acid – toxic, dangerous, and a relative of poison ivy (basically, not as delicious as a plum or cherry). By coming into skin contact with unprocessed cashews, you can get contact dermatitis, which, let me tell you having suffered 15 years of low-level dermatitis, is not a risk you want to take. Ever wondered why you don’t buy cashews in their shells? Well.
To make cashews safe for consumption, the drupe first needs to be roasted at high temperatures to pop it open, and this can only be done outdoors; otherwise, toxic fumes will build up inside and, I assume, no one will be in a state to eat their cashew butter toast that day.
Next the cashew needs to be washed with soap and water to remove the toxic oil. Gloves, long sleeves and goggles are highly recommended. If you harvest your own cashews and heat them in a pan, Gardening Know How explains that this pan is now effectively defunct; it is “now your designated cashew pan, as it may never get fully clean of the dangerous cashew oils”.
Somehow, in 2020 over 4 million tonnes of cashew nuts were produced worldwide. That’s a lot of soap, water, and goggles.
What is a nut?
As mentioned, the cashew is not actually a nut. Neither are pecans, pistachios, walnuts, or Brazil nuts. Almonds are seeds encased by a plum-like fruit. Pine nuts are the seeds of actual pine trees(!). Peanuts are in fact legumes. So then what’s a nut?
From Serious Eats: “A true nut, botanically speaking, is a hard-shelled pod that contains both the fruit and seed of the plant, where the fruit does not open to release the seed to the world. Some examples of botanical nuts are chestnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns.”
Where to buy cashews
After all that excitement, I’m brought down to earth by searching for cashews at the supermarket. Countdown, Pak’nSave and New World each have plenty of cashew options, all around $2.70 – $3.90 for every 100g. Supie sells 300g of cashews for $9.80. If you’re a nut butter fan, you’re looking at $10 for 275g of Fix & Fogg Cashew Butter at Countdown and New World, or $9 at Supie.
To be honest, the complexity of how cashews are produced makes all of these pricey prices seem pretty reasonable to me.
How to make cashews terrible
Grow your own, and then poison yourself / blister your skin / blind your eyes / toxify your home. A store-bought ready-to-eat cashew, however, is salty, crunchy, creamy perfection that cannot be ruined.
How to make them amazing
Cashews are a delectable 44% fat and 18% protein, making them a great hiking snack. Roasted and salted, they’re pretty hard to beat. If you’re a bit fancy, you might like spreading cashew butter on your toast, or frothing cashew milk for your latte.
Ground cashews are also the base for curries and sauces like korma, and are a common ingredient in plenty of Indian desserts and sweets. For me, the best use of the cashew is a simple, easy, satisfying Thai cashew chicken stir-fry on rice. I’ve added chicken to my recipe, but firm tofu or simply extra veggies would be just as delicious. Just remember, though, when you’re whipping together dinner: those cashews grew in a toxic environment, dangling from a cashew apple.
Wyoming Paul is the co-founder of Grossr, and runs a weekly meal plan that connects to online supermarket shopping.