I saw these in the market the other day and I couldn’t resist a few handfuls. This is an unusual presentation for them, so I’m wondering if you know which Silk Road Ingredient they are. Hint: They are soft and slightly sweet when eaten or used at this stage. (Contest closed as of 11/1/2012 – 9 AM EST)
I’ll leave it up for a few days and then change the caption and add a comment and more information about the mystery ingredient. Earliest correct answer gets a copy of The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One. (Words and Photo of Fresh Pistachio Nuts by Laura Kelley, Photo of Pistachio Nuts Ripening on the Tree by Stan Shubs, and Pistachios with Skins Removed from Wikimedia).
As many who entered correctly guessed, the Silk Road Ingredient in the photograph is fresh pistachio nuts. But the truth of the matter is that pistachios along with almonds and others things we call nuts are not nuts at all – they are drupes – which is sort of fruit with a hard endocarp and enclosed seed. To attempt to close the gap between correct biological classification and common usage of the term, “nut”, the category “culinary nut” was created that includes true nuts (like hazelnuts and chestnuts), drupes (like pistachios, almonds and sometimes walnuts), gymnosperm seeds (like pine nuts and ginko nuts) and angiosperm seeds (like soybeans and macadamia nuts).
The usual presentation of pistachio nuts is with the yellow and blush-colored skin removed to reveal a hard “shell” with the edible “nut” inside the shell as pictured here. However, the mystery picture is how pistachios come off the tree and are dried or processed for oil or pistachio paste. Our local Persian market had a big box of them so I scored a few for my family and for readers of the blog.
Raw pistachios taste very different from commercial nuts. They are soft and very subtly flavored with just a touch of sweetness. The strong flavor we generally identify with them comes largely from the salt or sugar we add to them post processing.
Pistachio nuts or Pistacia vera, was first grown and cultivated in the ancient Near East (Iraq, Syria and Iran) with evidence of their use as a food item going back to 6750 BCE in Jarmo, Iraq. They are also noted as an ingredient in the mersu recipe from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari from about 1800 – 1750 BCE, so our use of them in the kitchen is indeed ancient and ongoing. For some ancient recipes to use them with, see the mersu post from the Mesopotamian cookoff. For modern recipes for pistachios, see the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One, which includes recipes for the Iranian, omelet-like Kuku with Green Peas and Pistachios and the Azeri confection Pakhlava Pistachios are also important ingredients in the Armenian Sweet Orange-Saffron Sauce, and are used along with other ingredients to fill pastries, flavor stews and garnish many other Silk Road dishes with a bit of extra flavor.
For more on nuts and drupes and things like them check out my earlier post: