A photo of a cashew growing on a tree caused a sensation on the internet a couple of months ago. I completely missed it, but someone mentioned it to me the other day. Not the viral photo, but that cashews grow funny.

For anyone else who missed it, let’s talk about cashews. Here’s what they really look like.

Cashew “nuts” ripen in a small capsule hanging beneath a fruit known as the Cashew Apple or Marañon. This yields an astringent but popular drink and also an alchoholic beverage. Beside the nut, the capsule contains as least two poisons, one being the irritant in poison ivy. The nuts must be roasted, or in the case of “raw cashews” steamed, before they are safe to eat. Now a pantropical crop from a South American origin. Photo by
Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada via Wikimedia Commons.

As to the history, cashew trees are native to Brazil. When the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, they colonized Brazil and exported cashews to India as part of their trade network. And it turns out that cashew trees don’t mind leaving home. Soon they were growing in India, Asia, and Africa.

Cashewnuts hanging on a Cashew Tree, a photo from Kannur. Photo by
Vinayaraj via Wikimedia Commons.

So why don’t we buy cashews in the shell? Inside the shell are compounds that have an affect like poison ivy. Cashews must be shelled, either manually or by machine, very carefully. And then they need to be roasted or cooked to be sure none of the compounds remain on the nut. Oh, and be careful of the smoke while roasting as that also contains toxins.

Like me, you have probably never seen a cashew apple. Those are mostly used locally as they are too fragile to ship and have a very short shelf life. When they are used, it is mostly to make fruit drinks or fermented to make alcohol.

Cashew tree in Meconta District, Nampula Province, Mozambique. Photo by
MJEHermann via Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately cashews are a lot of work, which is probably why they didn’t become a product of international trade until the early twentieth century.

Here is a good, quick video that’s worth a watch.

Please share if you know of any other common food that would surprise us!