Thursday, July 29, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Cashew Nut (Castanha de Caju)

Although to most Brazilians, and certainly to Brazilians from the country's northeast region, cashew (caju) refers to a red, orange or yellow fruit (technically a pseudo-fruit) that is eaten fresh or processed into juice, ice creams, drinks and candies, it's not the fruit, but instead the small seed pod attached to it, that's important economically in this part of the country. It's the seed that is exported world-wide from Brazil and which becomes the cashew nut that consumers in North America, Europe and Japan crave, and which they call a cashew.


The vast majority of Brazilian exports of cashew nuts come from the northeast of Brazil, and specifically from the state of Ceará. Of a world market of approximately 70,000 metric tons of cashew nuts, Brazil is the source of approximately 23,000 tons, or one-third of the total. Most of the exported cashew nuts from Brazil are destined to the USA, which imports about 35,000 tons annually, according to the latest statistics. The largest exporting country is India, which exports more than half of the world's consumption of cashew nuts. Incidentally, it is only in Brazil that the fruit itself (the "cashew-apple") is consumed. In India and Africa the taste is not much appreciated, and more than 95% of the fruit is discarded during cashew nut production for export.

The extraction of the nut (or seed) itself from the seed pod is difficult, and the outer shell of the pod contains chemicals that irritate the skin. Thus the export market for cashew nuts consists almost entirely of pre-shelled nuts. Great care is taken in the extraction process, which is partially mechanized, to preserve the entire nut unbroken, as unbroken nuts command a much higher price internationally than do broken or chipped nuts.

Cashew nuts are exported from Brazil in both raw and roasted states, though the majority are exported in while still raw, and are roasted in the country of import. Click here for a YouTube video (in Portuguese) which demonstrates the entire production-for-export operation in Ceará.

Here in Fortaleza, where caju fruit is king, there are still a number of small shops where cashew nuts (castanha de caju) are roasted in small batches and sold by weight. Normally the nuts are not salted after roasting, though you can ask for a dash of salt to be added to your purchase if you wish. Prices are extremely reasonable by North American standards. Last week I bought 500 gr (slightly more than a pound) of roasted, whole cashew nuts for R$8 (ten reais), which is about USD $4.50. They were delicious and when served for friends one evening recently disappeared at an alarming speed. It's a good thing they're cheap, because they don't last long on the pantry shelf. Served slightly salted, roasted cashew nuts are one of the best accompaniments to a cocktail there is. Next time you serve caipirinhas, accompany them with roasted cashew nuts for an "all-Brazilian" cocktail hour.

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