We've enjoyed many a cashew nut nibble, salted or honey sweet, over the years. But why are they are so expensive compared to a peanut? On Koh Phayam we found out. The cashew nut, Kayoo in Thai, is hand picked and manually processed during the various stages to get the nut from the tree to the shop shelves.
Koh Phayam island is covered in cashew nut trees, with families each harvesting their land. Our time here coincided with the cashew harvest. This meant that during day and night you were continuously bombarded by falling cashew apples all across the island. They landed on the corrugated tin roof at night and took potshots at you during the day on your motorbike as you drive along the islands narrow tracks. Many locals and tourists had tales to tell of their cashew injuries. The British naturally stood their ground under the bombardment, as for the French.....well.......!!
I'm sure that there is a more comprehensive process flow in more advanced communities but this is what we saw happen. Only matured nuts from fully-grown apple were harvested. When the apples fall from the tree the nuts are ripe and ready for collection. The nut is broken off from the bottom of the cashew apple.
The cashew apple is a soft fruit, rich in nutrients, and contains five times more vitamin C than an orange. Throughout cashew nut producing countries the apple is eaten fresh, cooked in curries, or fermented into vinegar, as well as brandy. However in Koh Phayam the apple is hardly used at all in cooking, let alone the production of alcohol, which seems a shame!
After harvesting, the nuts are immediately sun dried on a tarpaulin sheet on hard ground. Uniform drying can be achieved by regularly turning the nuts over to prevent partial drying. Freshly harvested nuts normally require three days of sun drying.
The raw cashew nuts, now sun dried, are then steamed for about 30 minutes. The cooking time varies depending upon the conditions of the cashew nut and atmospheric conditions. The steaming expands the outer husk and softens the nuts due to penetration of steam into the husk.
After steaming, the nuts are air-cured by spreading out on the floor in the shade. These ultimately harden the shell and make it fit enough for de-husking in the manually operated cutting machine. The husks are removed as they are toxic.
Et voila, there's your cashew nut. It's pretty waxy and bland at this stage so they are often roasted or lightly fried in Koh Phyayam with salt and chilli to make a perfect appetiser or added to stir fry, curries and salads.
A cashew apple with its nut dangling below ripens on one of the thousands of trees which cover the island
Once the fruit has fallen the locals harvest the nut and levee the apple on the ground. Everywhere you go the smell of fermenting apples hangs thick in the air like a Somerset cider festival
The nuts are dried in the sun and turned regularly
Once steamed the toxic husk is removed using this hand tool before bagging the nuts
The island's cashew nut festival coincided with our time here
Bagged nuts for sale direct from the Koh Phayam Farmers Wives Group
Our accommodation was called Baan San Kayoo, the home of the cashew nut, and the walls of the kitchen were adorned with pictures of the family's prize crop