Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cashews are one of my favorite kinds of nuts. I’ve been known to consume copious quantities of them if I’m left alone with an open can. So I was surprised to discover that cashew trees are botanically related to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. 

The tree produces the same urushiol oil as its green, leafy relatives. Lest anyone stop buying and eating cashews because of childhood memories of red, bubbly, torturously itchy poison ivy rashes, I’ll explain why my favorite nut is just fine to eat despite its nasty kinfolk.

The cashew tree produces what is called a cashew “apple.” It looks really weird, as you can see from the picture. At the bottom of the apple is a kidney-shaped protrusion called the “fruit” that encases the cashew “seed” which we call a nut. It's like the fruit exploded and it's insides came out.

That kidney-shaped shell around the cashew is what contains the urushiol oil, which is why you will never see an unshelled cashew in the grocery store. The shell can cause anything from skin irritation to a severe allergic reaction in people susceptible to urushiol oil. If the shells are burned, the smoke can cause lung irritation, just like the smoke from burning poison ivy.

The cashews you buy in the store are never raw, even if the packages say they are. A majority of the time the shells are steamed to remove the fruit to avoid pieces of the shell lingering amongst the delicious nuts. So if that can you buy says “raw” cashews, they aren’t. It just means the cashew has been steamed, but not roasted.

As you can see, the top of the cashew apple looks a little like a red, yellow, or orange pepper. This part of the apple is also edible and is often made into juice that has a sweet, nutty taste like the cashew nut.

Cashews are grown in tropical places throughout the world such as Brazil, Vietnam, and India. Unless you live very close to one of those places it's likely you'll never see a whole cashew apple because they're soft and juicy, and don’t ship well.

So the next time you open a can or jar of cashews, take a moment to be grateful that you don't have to don gloves and remove the shell.   


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