Panama Cashews: Nuts or Seeds?
I just thought cashews came from the grocery store. I loved them, but knew nothing about them — until I got to Panama!
Since making my home in this country, I have learned that cashews (marañón in Spanish) aren’t even nuts. They grow on trees and are the seeds in a fruit, and you’ll find them all over the beaches area (and smashed into the highway if no one is diligent about picking them!).
Just like any fruit that grows on a tree, they start as flowers and eventually evolve into the fruit and seed. The fruits look like upside-down bell peppers and, just like the peppers, they come in shades of yellow, orange, and red. I’ve been told that the red ones are best for eating.
The “cashew apple” is actually called a drupe, and the seed can’t be found inside of it, which is where you usually find seeds. Instead, it hangs down, attached to the bottom of the fruit, as you can see in that picture.
There is only ONE seed — one cashew — per piece of fruit. Many locals chew the fruit for the juice and then actually spit out what is left, since it’s very chewy and not as pleasant to the juice itself. You can also squeeze the juice out for a more traditional beverage, or let it ferment into liquor. This liquor is called urrac and has about 15% alcohol. If it goes through a double distillation process, the drink is then called feni and is about 40% alcohol! Whoa! Maybe just have one…
If you see the seed hanging from the fruit and are tempted to pick the green seed, crack it open, and eat the cashew, I would strongly advise against it! The outer shell is rich in toxins that can actually be deadly! And if you do survive, it won’t be comfortable: most people can expect a lot of swelling and pain at the contact point, which would most likely be your mouth. Ouch!
The process of getting the cashew from the tree into an edible form is quite labor intensive – which explains why cashews are rather expensive. Because of all those toxins, they actually roast the cashews outdoors. When the seeds changes from greenish-grey to a dark brown, they are cracked open and the yummy cashew that we know and love is found within.
Derivatives of the roasted shells can be used in lubricants and paints, and other parts of the tree have traditionally been used to treat snake bites.
March and April in Panama are cashew months, and you will find the fruit as well as the roasted cashews for sale on little tables along the highway – especially near Coronado and in some local markets in the areas in which the marañón trees grow.
It’s like a drive-through cashew store! The little bags of cashews are $1 each. Make sure you use the Spanish word marañón — the locals selling the fruit usually don’t speak English and won’t know what “cashew” means! I don’t mess around: I buy five bags at a time and, if you’re lucky, I’ll have some left to share. These are something you must try while you’re in Panama!
Nervous to visit the stand alone? That’s okay — feeling those nerves and doing it anyway is what adapting to life in a new country is all about! Or just give me a call — I don’t need an excuse to visit the cashew vendor!