Cheap Eats:
Yum Med Mamuang
  (Thai Cashew Salad)

Do you remember reading history or anthropology books that described how indigenous groups had learned how to make poisonous foods edible? Those reports always made me wonder what the learning curve was like and how hungry you’d have to be to try something a second time, after the first try burned, sickened, or killed someone else?

Among the myriad foods that fall into the “who tried it second” category are cashews. Cashews, native to South America (probably northeast Brazil), are related to poison ivy and poison sumac. The nut is encased in an extremely hard shell that contains a toxic, caustic liquid that is sufficiently corrosive that in some cultures it is used for burning off warts. Even today, it is commonly used in industry, to create plastics, or as a pesticide.

Of course, not everyone goes for the bastioned nut. In some countries, the cashew apple is valued. You see, the cashew has an odd, two-part, fruit: a somewhat pear-shaped “apple” and, projecting from the end of the apple, the nut, looking rather like an afterthought. A ripe cashew apple will spoil within a day if kept at room temperature, so it is most often dried, candied, or preserved in syrup. Cashew apples are remarkably high in vitamin C and are quite tasty, if you can find them (cashew apples, also occasionally called cashew fruit, are not commonly consumed outside of South America and Asia, but they are sometimes available through fair trade organizations). However, the cashew apple is generally left to rot or be eaten by animals, and the hard-shelled, caustic nut is harvested.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much in the way of technology to make the nut viable. All that is really required is fire, though even here, it’s not simply a matter of getting the nuts hot. Roasting the nuts whole in a hot fire makes the shells break open, and the caustic fluid spills out and bursts into flame, releasing fumes that can injure the eyes or skin. More sophisticated methods roast the nuts slowly in glowing embers, causing the poison to be dispelled without the fumes, and the weakened shells are then cracked open by hand. (So it’s not just who tried the nut second, after the first person to pick one had his skin burned off. It’s also who tried it third, after someone was blinded by the fumes of burning cashew fluid.)

By the time French, Dutch, and Portuguese explorers encountered the cashew, the indigenous people of Brazil had figured all this stuff out and had a reliable way of processing cashews without too much worry of personal injury. A globetrotting French naturalist named André Thevet was the first to describe the plant and the method of roasting the nuts to make them edible. Europeans made a point of learning how this worked.

The Portuguese picked up the name the Brazilian Tupi had for the nut—acaju—and shortened it to caju. From cashew in the US to kaju in India, in most (but not all) places you find this nut today, you’ll be able to see the linguistic connection to the original Tupi. In the places where you don’t encounter something related to caju, you’ll probably run into something related to the Spanish maranon, which may be derived from one of the first regions where the fruit was seen, the State of Maranhao in northern Brazil. (And you’ll note that the Thai for cashew, mamuang, is closer to the Spanish.)

The Portuguese and Spanish carried cashews off to their various colonies in the late 1500s. The Portuguese headed for East Africa and India, and the Spanish, for the Philippines. From India, and the Philippines, cashews spread into Southeast Asia. From East Africa, they spread to West. The cashew really took off everywhere that met its need for heat and humidity. Cashews now grow in most of the world’s tropical countries, and are grown commercially in 32 of those countries.

India is the world’s leading producer of cashews. It is also one of the world’s leading consumers of cashews. Vietnam, Brazil, and Tanzania are the next big cashew growers, followed by Kenya, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Thailand. Mozambique used to be number one, but with independence came a loss of government protection, and Mozambique ceased to be the premier player. The major importers are the U.S., European Union, China, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Cashews are the third most important tree nut on world markets.

This unusual cashew “salad” from Thailand makes a nice snack, but can also be served as a side dish or appetizer. Enjoy.

Yum Med Mamuang
(Thai Cashew Salad)

2 shallots

1 scallion (green onion/spring onion)

1 stalk lemon grass

1 Tbs. coarsely chopped Chinese celery leaves

1 Tbs. chopped fresh mint

¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1 medium-sized jalapeño

½ medium-sized sweet red pepper (want about as much red pepper as jalapeño)

½ cup vegetable oil

½ lb. raw large whole cashews


2 Tbs. fresh lime juice

1½ tsp. fish sauce

½ tsp. sugar

Slice the shallots thinly. Slice green onion thinly, including 1 inch of the green tops. Thinly slice the tender midsection of the lemongrass. Seed and de-vein the jalapeño and red pepper, and chop finely. Combine all vegetables and herbs in a bowl. Prepare the dressing by stirring together the ingredients until sugar is dissolved.

Pour oil into a frying pan (or wok) and heat slowly to 325°F (you’ll need a deep-frying thermometer to make sure you don’t get your oil too hot). When the oil is hot, add the cashews and fry, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the nuts to paper towels to drain. Then, while still warm, add nuts to the bowl of vegetables and herbs, and toss well. Pour over the dressing, and toss again.

Transfer the salad to a serving platter or individual plates and serve.

Serves 4-6.


It’s okay to substitute ordinary celery leaves for Chinese celery leaves.

Raw cashews are generally easiest to find in health food stores or stores that have bulk grocery sections, such as Whole Foods. However, if you can’t easily locate raw cashews, you could just warm roasted, unsalted cashews in a couple of tablespoons of oil—but be careful, because they go from golden to burned pretty quickly. Once they are warmed through, treat as you would the fried cashews.

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