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In the previous nature diary article I wrote about the tamarind and the long journey this fruit has made from Africa to end up on our Island. This time it’s the turn of the fruta di Kashupete. This tree was also an element of the gardens near Maridol, where part of the da Costa Gomez family grew up. Most of these gardens and fruit trees are now gone, but here and there you might encounter a proud tree that is probably more than a century old.
Kashupete (Anacardium occidentale)
Cashews. Expensive curved nuts, a favorite roasted and salted snack, and ingredient in Indian curries and other dishes. Many people are not aware that there is a cashew fruit as well. Visitors to Costa Rica will remember clearly, the bags with warm orange juicy fruits sold by the roadside or at the market as Marañon or Fruta the Cashu. They look promising and the first bite from the fruit will tell whether you belong to the group of fans or the group of haters. A midway does not exist with this sweet aromatic fruit with a quite bitter and sour undertone. I’ve seen people literally get sick from this fruit.
The cashew tree, or palu di kashupete, is one of the many fruit trees that helped many a small child in the once poor Curaçao to grow up, just like the tamarind in the previous article. Nowadays the tree is less known, though a watchful eye will discover the distinctive tree, especially in neighborhoods like Brievengat and Sta Maria. More and more people are looking for this tree to plant in the garden, for the fruits, but also because the tree gets a full crown with large elliptical leaves. The crown will generally stay full, even in the drier periods.
The cashew tree and its fruit and nut are native to South America where numerous uses have been developed for the individual chemical components found in the leaves, fruits and nuts. The name probably comes from the Portuguese name Caju, which is used for the fruit and apparently derived from the indigenous name Acajú.
The Portuguese brought the plant to India in the 16th century and from there it has been distributed over a range of tropical areas where the plant was cultivated for the fruits and seeds. India became the master of roasting the seeds of the plant, transforming them into the very valuable roasted cashew with which significant trading was carried out.
The funny thing is that, despite the fact that the Cashew originally comes from South America, it is not that part of the world that produces most of the cashew fruits. That honor belongs to India.
The plant as we know it is a cultivated plant, which means that humanity manipulated the original tree in such way that it started to produce edible fruits. The real Cashew or Wild Cashew bears the scientific name Anacardium excelsum and grows on the banks of rivers in Central and South America. The tree stays always green and the kidney-shaped fruit it produces is no more that about 3 centimeters in length and is poisonous.
We tend to call the yellow or orange juicy part that is attached to the ‘nut’ of the kashupete, and which can grow to more than 10 centimeters in length, a fruit. But in fact this part is not the fruit at all. It is what in science is known as a false fruit. In this plant, the flower stem and flower base (to which the reproductive organs of the flower are attached) coalescence and swell, turning into what looks like a fruit. The real fruit of the plant is the green kidney-shaped object (see drawing) which looks like the cashew nut we know from the cans. The ‘nut’ itself resides in this green casing. Every real fruit of the Kashupete contains only one seed, which is roasted by humans and then classified as a nut.
The shell around the seed contains several chemicals that can cause allergic and irritant reactions to the skin. It even contains substances that are similar to the toxic chemicals found in the famous Poison Ivy, of which the plant is family, incidentally. The substance called urushiol is even that irritating that during the roasting of the seeds it can cause allergic reactions because small droplets are send up into the air with the smoke.
The false fruit is edible and for those that like it, it tastes like heaven. The fruits have a strong smell and a very sensitive skin, which easily becomes scratched and dented. In several Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, fresh juice is made with it.
Medicinal and in the kitchen
The chemical compounds in the real fruit of the kashupete are used around the world for medicinal applications including anti-bacterial purposes. The oil in the seeds is used against fungi, and some compounds are incorporated in various types of resin, and even cement and floor tiles. The wood of the trunk is used for making furniture.
Culinary not only the roasted nut is used in cooking and as a snack, but the young leaves of the tree seem to be edible and of course the fruit is a vitamin rich ingredient on the menu of many people, directly taken from the tree or as fresh fruit juice. The nuts, like the fruit, are very rich in vitamins and research has shown that especially vitamin B1, B6, iron and magnesium are present in high concentrations.
The fruits are not only converted to juice, but jams are also made from them. Besides ‘innocent’ fruit juice even different types of alcoholic beverages are made with fermented fruits, including certain types of liquor and wine. These are not commercially available, but many households in Latin America and even in the Caribbean have their own small distillation unit. Also on Curacao!
Plant by yourself
If you want a kashupete tree in the garden nothing more is needed than some real fruits of the tree, the green kidney-shaped fruits that are attached to the false fruit, a few cups and good soil. Bury the whole green fruit in the earth and water it every day. Before you know it a small plant sprouts up, which can be planted outside in the garden. In good conditions, within a year or two the plant grows to a large bush that already carries fruits. Enjoy your healthy snack!