How Cashews Grow
The Cashew Apple
Can you recognize this fruit in the picture above? Would it surprise you to know that you have probably eaten this before but not recognized it? It's a cashew nut. The part at the top is called the cashew apple. This is a juicy fibrous fruit that is eaten locally either like an apple, juiced, or cooked into a dessert. The nut is hanging off the bottom of this fruit in a protective outer shell.
Here on our farm, in northern Brazil, we have several types of cashew trees. We have both dwarf and full-size trees with fruit that is either yellow or red. The cashew nuts they produce also vary in size, the most valuable being the larger ones. The smaller ones are either sold locally or ground into cashew flour or sold as broken nuts by local street vendors. The cashew tree is native to this area of Brazil and it is common to see them growing wild in scrub land near the roads. The locals will toss a twig up to a ripe cashew fruit to knock it down to eat. They will also do this to gather the nuts to sell.
Raw Cashew Nuts
There are many places that sell what they are calling raw cashews. The problem is, all have been steamed or boiled. So if you are buying packages of raw cashews you are being conned and wasting your money. If you doubt this, plant one and see if it grows.
The reason for this is there is a strong acid inside the cashew shell. This prevents anyone from opening the nut without them first cooking it. Even if you have heard of raw cashew nuts, this is not true. All the nuts have to be cooked in order to open the shell and release the acid. So raw cashews are in fact heated if not roasted. I have seen the resulting burn of the acid in the cashew nut on the arm of my young neighbor. She was about 10 when it happened and It was very painful for her.
Traditionally Prepared Cashew Nuts
When we had our first harvest of cashew nuts, shortly after arriving in Brazil, I was petrified at the way they were prepared. Being a native Californian, I have had the possibility of forest fires ingrained in me from a young age. Seeing how traditional roasting of cashews was done here on a parched lawn with dry looking palm trees nearby had me worried. Coupled with a gusty day I envisioned the whole farm catching alight.
Our gardener began by washing out a 25-liter paint can and piercing holes in it. Then he began to build a fire rather close to the house and just explained they had always done it this way. The next thing I knew there was a roaring (albeit small) fire burning uncomfortably close-by. The cashews were spitting hot acid and the gardener just kept stirring explaining that everything was under control.
Below is a video of how this process is done. It also shows how to make caldo do caju. This is stewed cashew fruits cooked with water and sugar. This is also commercially available to buy here in Brazil. I hope you enjoy the video.
The price of cashews varies from year to year, depending on the harvest. It is about R$3.00 per kilo (Brazilian Real), which is the equivalent of a $1.00 per kilo or about 50¢ a pound. I collect them and remove the nut from the fruit. Some twist off easily, others I need either fishing line or wire to separate the nut from the fruit. I wear gloves to prevent my hands from becoming discolored. The juice will stain clothing, countertops, and even the sink. After removing the nut, I place them in the sun until they dry, then I bag them, ready to go to the buyer. I wait until I have 15 to 20 kilos. My local buyer, who happens to be a shopkeeper close by, has a roomful of cashews waiting to go to the factory in Fortaleza, about 70 kilometers away.
Here we also eat the cashew apple. I will eat this straight from the tree or use my juicer. It does take some getting used to, as it leaves a dry, almost astringent taste in your mouth. Although the cashew fruit is for sale locally, it's thin skin means it doesn't travel well. My neighbor showed me how to eat the fruit to avoid the juice staining my clothing. Occasionally I have seen the fruit frozen for sale, but most people prefer it fresh.
Below, I have selected a video from Ghana that shows how the nuts and the fruit are processed locally. It's labor-intensive and is one of the reasons why cashews are expensive.
Nutritional value of cashews
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Did you grow the dwarf cashew from a seed, is that possible?
All of our cashew trees were here when we moved in. Now, let me tell you about growing cashews. Yes, you can grow them from the seed (the nut). Often if I haven't picked them up, they begin sprouting and I get small cashew plants scattered over the lawn. These get pulled out.
Now for the rest of the story! If you are in a country that doesn't have cashew trees growing you may be thinking that you can plant a nut and it will grow. It won't, they have been heat treated. Even bags of nuts claiming to be raw cashews won't. From my research there are only a handful of people who can extract the nut without heat treating in some way, either boiling or roasting it. The acid that surrounds the nut inside the shell is dangerous.
If you go to a health food shop and a bag says 'raw cashews' buy it and plant one. If it sprouts, I will be surprised.
© 2012 Mary Wickison