Small Asian tree (Pistacia vera) of the cashew family whose drupaceous (i.e. one-seeded, with a hard bony endocarp, a fleshy mesocarp, and a flexible thin exocarp) fruit contains a greenish edible seed. The pistachio has, particularly since the 1950s, achieved the status of luxury, costing three or four times as much as other nuts.
: Italian pistacchio
from Latin pistacium
from Greek pistakion
, from pistakE
akin to Persian pistah
A Culinary Delicacy
To appreciate its subtle flavor, the pistachio tastes best when roasted and salted as a dessert nut. As a garnish or decoration, the nut may be used in many cooking contexts from the sweet to the savory. Consider, for instance, that the finest pilafs (dish made of seasoned rice and often meat) and European pâté (a spread of finely chopped or pureed seasoned meat) and brawns (a moulded, jellied cold meat delicacy, usually made from head of pig, sheep, ox or, in Britain, rabbit) often contain pistachios. These dishes are served in slices so that the nuts appear as attractive green slivers.
Pistacchio gelato can be found in the brasseries of Venice and Milan; in this form, the dessert achieves a glorious unity of fragrance and texture. American companies have had considerable success as well, Haagen-Dazs and Blue Bell Creameries (est. 1907 in Brenham, Texas) especially. Pistachio honeycomb is a sensation.
The Luminous Green Nut
Resembling an olive, the "nut" of the pistachio is actually a kernel of the stone of a small, dry fruit. After the fruit has matured, the shell gapes open at one end revealing the kernel. In Iran, this condition of ripeness is termed khandan, laughing.
In many ways, the pistachio's allure has as much to do with its color as its flavor, which is mild but thoroughly distinctive. The green color results from the presence of chlorophyll, a photosynthetic pigment found chiefly in the chloroplasts of plants and occurring here as dark green ester (C55H70MgN4O6). The amount of chlorophyll determines the intensity of the green color; indeed, many kernels are more yellowish, others appear closer to ivory. Generally speaking, the darker and more intense the green, the more expensive the pistachio.
The first textual evidence we have of the consumption and cultivation of the pistachio dates back to 7000 B.C, and since then, the species has been improved over several millenia. The Romans introduced pistachio trees to Europe in the 1st Century AD. Before then, the nuts had grown wild in the high desert regions of the Middle East. The California Pistachio Commision notes: "Legend has it that lovers met beneath the trees to hear the pistachios crack open on moonlit nights for the promise of good fortune". Today the Eastern cultivation of pistachios takes places most prominently in Iran, though Syria, Southeastern Europe, Turkey, Spain, and Northern Africa all contribute to its availability in the "Old World".
California provides the most abundant source of pistachio in the world today. The introduction of the cultivar Kerman in 1953 made possible the production of pistachio. Increasing global demand caused the large scale production of the nut in the early 1970s.
Australia grows pistachios on a smaller scale in Victoria, using either the Kerman variety or Sirora, a sought-after variety found in Victoria alone.
Amount per serving: 47 whole nuts.
Total Fat (grams): 13.
Saturated Fat: 1.5
Polyunsaturated Fat: 4
Monounsaturated Fat: 7
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion To Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
*California Pistachio Commision web site (www.pistachios.org). Contains a somewhat questionable history of the California pistachio industry; sources listed include a 'scientific' article by the Seventh Day Adventists.
Rinzler, Carol Ann. The New Complete Book Of Food: A Nutritional, Medical, and Culinary Guide. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.