The cashew nut is the seed kernel of an evergreen perennial tree Anacardium occidentale that grows to a height of 12 metres.
Cashew nuts have a deliciously sweet and buttery, nutty flavour with a slightly softer texture than many other nuts. The nuts are sold in 3 fashions, raw, boiled and roasted, although you will need to be close to the source to find raw cashews. They lend themselves to many culinary uses, from a simple table nut, to cooking in both sweet and savoury dishes.
The cashew tree is native to South and Central America, however its march across the culinary world was assured when Portuguese traders took the nut with them to Goa, where successful crops were established. The tree has since moved across coastal tropical areas in South East Asia as well as other countries such as Australia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and the West Indies, all of which produce notable quantities of cashews. The native Brazilian word for cashews, acaju, became caju with its movement into India.
Cashews grow in an extraordinary manner. Instead of the seed growing inside the fruit, as is mostly the case, cashews grow as a small extension to the base of the cashew fruit, which is also called cashew apple, due to its similar appearance to the popular orchard fruit. This gives it a most striking appearance. The seed is enclosed in a thick shell, which is abundant with anacordolic acid, which if ingested can cause damage to the salivary glands as well as paralysis of the jaw. It is for this reason that cashews are always sold sans shell.
Apart from the obvious culinary uses of the cashew nut, the cashew fruit is fermented in Goa to make an alcoholic spirit known as feni. This is mixed with fresh coconut juice and crushed ice to make a refreshing if somewhat potent drink.
The nut oil is said to treat a range of ailments including calluses, corns, and warts, cancerous ulcers, and even elephantiasis! The shell of the nut contains a black vesicant oil that is used is such diverse areas of manufacture as typewriter roll production, waterproofing, and termite-proofing timber.
My favourite way of using cashews, apart from eating them roasted by the handful, is to cook them in the traditional styles of Asia. In China, they are a popular ingredient in stir fried dishes, and in Sri Lanka, they are often cooked in coconut milk based curries. Have a go at the following great stir fried cashew recipes.
Plus, don't miss out on making cashew butter.
At the request of Estragon Bleu, an image of the cashew fruit can be found at: