Cadju, ripe for the plucking
Whilst the world's certainly nutty over cashew, nature seems to have gone crazy when it was created. For the nut is not inside the fruit but is found as an appendage, giving it the impression that it was only added as an afterthought. But it's apt. For it is not the fruit but the nut that reigns supreme in popularity in Sri Lanka.
Words: Manu Gunasena
Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham
Not that the fruit has no appeal. Called the cashew apple or puhuluma, its full pear figure turns reddish yellow when ripe and comes with a sweet strong smell and a distinctive sweet though sharp and biting taste of its own. The soft succulence of the pulp lends it easily to be squeezed and made into a lovely refreshing fruit juice. Its juice can be fermented into vinegar and distilled to make alcoholic drinks.
The puhuluma can be cooked as a spicy curry and also can be used to flavour beverages. In some countries, this is used to make jams and even chutneys. It can also be prepared with sugar and water and made into a paste to be eaten as a dessert. The cashew apple is also eaten raw as achcharu with addition of salt to give a different flavour.
Though the puhuluma became popular in certain countries and even considered a delicacy, in Sri Lanka it never caught on to the same degree that its accompanying kidney shaped add-on nut did; it was the nut that held sway.
In Sri Lanka, the fruit never caught on to the same degree that its accompanying kidney shaped add-on nut did; it was the nut that held sway.
The Portuguese were the first to discover cashew, growing in the deep jungles of Brazil. They were soon to introduce the tree to the South Asian countries where they, along with their colonisation flag, planted it in the early 16th Century. The cashew tree is an evergreen tree and generally grows to an average height of about 20 to 30 feet. This is commercially grown in areas such as Puttalam, Moneragala, Bibile, Mahiyanganaya, Batticaloa Amparai, Mannar, and other similar hot zones in the country.
At the epicentre of sight and taste is the cashew nut - called cadju in Lanka - which seems to have wriggled out of the cashew fruit to advertise its singular presence and importance to the world. But beware. The cashew is a hard nut to crack. The nut does not allow easy entry to its inner sanctum. The reason for this is that a highly toxic acid called urishiol, which is also found in poison ivy, and poison oak, lies between the shell and the seed. Given the oil's toxity, extracting the cashew nut is a hazardous task and must be done with extreme care.
The process begins by either sun drying or roasting or steaming the cadju shells. This is to evaporate the layer of urishiol and also make the hardness of the shell more malleable to be split open. Interestingly, cashew shells are burnt to produce smoke that is a mosquito repellent.
In small scale cottage operations, this is generally done by hand but in cashew processing plants the shell is cracked with the aid of hand operated splitting tools. But since the cashew seed may still contain traces of urishiol, it is subjected to further drying or put through a hot air chamber to restrict moisture. Then it is peeled. Cracking and peeling is quite a labour since it is done one cashew at a time.
Now the world’s favourite nut is ready to be eaten. But in which way? Roasted, unroasted, creamy or spicy, curry or dessert: the list is endless.
Now the world's favourite nut is ready to be eaten. But in which way? Take your pick. It can be eaten raw but, unwashed with traces of toxin still remaining, it can cause blisters on the lips or even indigestion. It is better to be munched washed, it is then called kiri cadju or milk cashew. The nuts can be boiled with turmeric added. Or it can be roasted or fried with chilli powder added. Cashew can be caramelised or coated in jaggery or chocolate. Cashew can be used in cakes and in biriyani as well. It can be diced into minute pieces and sprinkled upon desserts. It can be made into a curry, as Lankans often do, for special occasions with turmeric giving the curry a yellow hue. The list is endless.
The Cadju Girls of Cadjugama
Bataliya, a small village about 25 miles from Colombo has been for years a cadju hub. Then one day in 1934, Johanna Hamine, a resident of the area, was roasting some cashew on the road to take to Colombo to sell. A motorist stopped by and bought some of Johanna Hamine's roasted cashew. The idea struck her that she did not have to take the cashew to Colombo to sell it. She could sell it right on her doorstep to passing motorists. She recruited a few village girls and set up the operation. It was an overnight success. Twelve years later, her daughter succeeded her and continued this endeavour with a slight difference.
Village damsels in the area, dressed in colourful cloth and jackets, were given the task to sell the cashew on either side of the busy Colombo - Kandy road. Sales soared and passing vehicles stopped to buy cadju from the beautifully adorned village belles with enchanting smiles. The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa named this area as Cadjugama, the cashew village due to its significance and popularity.
Even today, young girls, probably the granddaughters of the first pioneering models, still sell cashew with a smile on this busy highway.