Taste memories are strong. They can catapult a person half way around the world to the faces and places connected with the moment you first encountered a food or in this case appreciated it anew. This is a story of how on a dreamy paced drive through Tamilnadu, South India, cashews became indelibly imprinted on my taste memory.
I never associated cashews with India. They are native to Brazil but it turns out India now produces 90% of the world’s commercial cashew crop.
It was on a breathlessly still day full with the humidity of a monsoon waiting to empty its bulging mass of moisture on the earth that we happened upon a cluster of roadside cashew sellers. We stopped to meet them and learn more about what they were doing to make a living.
Cashews are a seed. They come from a tropical evergreen tree and are found inside the cashew apple. The shell of the seed is poisonous (like poison ivy) so it must be roasted and cracked before you can eat the interior that we know as the cashew.
We visited several huts serving as kiosk stores and then I settled in to visit with a business that seemed to be owned by a family. I watched as a couple roasted the cashews in metal pots on open fires.
When sufficiently toasted – or blackened actually – they were passed onto other family members to crack the shell and remove the inner seed. A woman squatted on the ground and used a blunt implement that I’m hesitant to call a knife to press the blackened shells on a bit of rock. It was dirty and hard work. She had lines of strain on her face.
An older woman nearby held a baby. Another younger woman took our money as we each bought a few kilos for what worked out to a few dollars in Canadian currency.
We were about to leave when I squatted down beside an older man to say goodbye and thank you. I think, I hope, he was the grandfather. He was as lean a person as I’ve seen in India or anywhere. No meat on his bones, sunken temples, ribs for counting and yet he did not hesitate. He held out his hand and offered me all that he had – a precious few cashews.
I took what he offered and noticed his swollen clubs for fingers. Were they swollen from exposure to the poison of the shells or from multiple burns? I smiled at him. I had only wanted to talk and ask for a photo but I ate the offering without hesitation. I could see my travel nurse cringing back in Canada. Public health warnings be dammed, I thought.
I put my hands together in prayer and said, “Vannakom” – the Tamil way of saying Namaste or “I bow to the light in you”. I wanted to honour him and his offering. Dignity has so little to do with station in life.
Now whenever I see cashews, the cashew man’s face is there in my mind. Cashews and the man. The man and cashews. South India, my friends, the softness of the hills and the air, the harshness of some people’s lives – it all melds into that taste memory.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
One day, shortly before Christmas last year, when I was walking through The Calgary Farmers’ Market I happened upon Cashew Coconut Butter at a nut seller’s kiosk. I froze on the spot. It was as though my cashew man was calling out to me.
I may not have known until that visit to Tamilnadu that India grows cashews but I’ve been to South India a few times and you can’t swing a monkey there without bumping into a coconut tree. The same goes for ginger. It grows wild here, there and everywhere that it gets the chance.
I looked at the creamy consistency of the Cashew Coconut Butter here on my side of the world, on a freezing cold winter’s day and began to imagine a rich and delicious breakfast bar. I went home and played around with this exotic concoction along with a few great local ingredients and that is how I came up with a recipe for Coconut Cashew Granola Fudge Bars that became part of a story I did on Christmas baking.
Cashews, coconut and ginger – these are tastes of a place I love and the cashews come with a face and a story. The tastes of my travels help me savour it all.
Have you had an experience like this? I’d love to hear about it.
I’m fortunate to have led four cuisine and culture tours to India with my partners at Indus Travels, Hi Tours and TravelXS. I’ll be returning again in 2016*. I’ve got so many stories to share of this place and her people whom I love so dearly. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more.
*for more info on my India trips contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org