Wednesday, July 28, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Caju, The "Cashew but Not-A-Cashew" Fruit

This week, during my walks around Fortaleza, I've noticed that the fruit vendors who sell their wares at traffic lights, busy corners and on the seafront promenade once again have cashew (caju) fruit on their trays or ready-bagged in plastic bags. The return of fresh caju is a sign that the winter harvest season has arrived, and caju will be be available fresh for the next couple of months only. After that, we'll have to rely on juices, frozen pulp, ice creams, cajuina, and conserves to tide us over to next year and another winter harvest (remember, July and August are winter months south of the Equator).

I call caju the "cashew but not-a-cashew" fruit because for most North Americans and Europeans the word "cashew" refers to a kidney-shaped nut which can be eaten raw or toasted, plain, salted or sugared. That small nut comes from part of the caju fruit and is eaten here in Brazil, but it's known as castanha de caju (which translates into English as "nut of the cashew fruit). In actuality, the Portuguese terminology is more precise than the English, as the nut is only a part of the story, and for Brazilians caju refers to all the edible parts of the fruit that are not the nut, rather than to the nut itself.

It's complicated, linguistically, botanically and gastronomically, to keep all this sorted out, but the bottom line is that the tree known in English as the cashew tree (in Portuguese cajueiro, and in Latin, Anacardium occidentale) produces a kidney-shaped seed pod containing a single seed (the "nut"). This seed pod hangs at the end of a pseudo-fruit which is red or yellow, large and smooth-skinned and sweet in flavor. This is the caju as it's known in Brazil, and though it isn't well known in most parts of the English-speaking world, it's called the "cashew apple" in English. So when a Brazilian speaks about caju, it's normally the pseudo-fruit he or she is referring to, not the nut itself. The situation is exactly opposite in English, where "cashew" refers to the nut, and not the pseudo-fruit. Clear?

However confusing the terminology is, caju is one of the most well-loved and most iconic fruits of Brazil's northeast, where the tree originated and has been cultivated for centuries. Because of it's distinctive and unusual appearance, with a bean-like appendage dangling from a beautiful red or yellow fruit, the caju is used extensive in graphic design, printed fabrics, advertising and other visual media to suggest the tropics of northeastern Brazil. The photos that accompany this text are proof of the visual appeal and graphic possibilities of the caju. Even Brazil's super-popular president, Lula, uses the caju fruit to link his career to his northeastern roots (see photo above right).

The next couple of posts will discuss the caju further, and will treat the fruit and the nut as two different foods. Although they come from the same tree, caju (cashew-apple) and castanha de caju (cashew nut) really might just as well come from two entirely different trees. They have almost nothing in common, except botanically, are marketed separately and used differently in eating and cooking.  So, here on Flavors of Brazil, we'll separate them as well.

3 comments:

  1. anybody know where i can buy cashew fruit? found the juice (yu-um!!) but not the fruit. dried is fine, raw/fresh is fine, drying my own is fine. i'd be very happy to find it in any form.

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    1. I'm not optimistic that you'd find fresh cashew fruit (caju) anywhere in North America, but I could be proven wrong. However, it's more likely you could find semi-dried (think dates) in Latin American or Brazilian markets, as that product isn't perishable. In Portuguese, it's called "doce de caju". Good luck! (PS. If you ever come to Brazil, you'll definitely love fresh caju).
      JAMES

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