Name That Silk Road Ingredient #1: Pistachios

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)

Fresh Pistachio Nuts

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).


Pistachios Ripening on Tree

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).

Pistachios with Skins Removed

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:

From Fruits to Nuts

From Fruits to Nuts

Mixed Nuts

Biologists do things differently – sometimes very differently – from most people. Case in point is that most of the “nuts” that we cook with are actually fruits. To a biologist, a nut is defined as a one-seeded fruit with a hard, ripened ovary wall (pericarp). Of the many culinary nuts used in Asian cooking, only hazelnuts and chestnuts are true nuts. Most everything else is some sort of fruit classified as a drupe. Generally speaking, a drupe is a fruit that has a hard inner layer (endocarp) bearing one or more seeds. Common usage calls these “seeds” nuts – hence the confusion. Almonds, candlenuts, cashews, pine nuts, beechnut, pistachios and coconuts – all are drupes. To further complicate things some nuts – like the peanut are actually a type of vegetable called a legume. Lastly, modern systematic which uses genetic information to classify organisms as well as distinct phenotypic (physical) characteristics, has determined that walnuts and pecans may be a sort of intermediary between true nuts and drupes called tryma.

There are dry drupes – of which the coconut is the classic example, and fleshy drupes which are more frequently associated with true “fruits” such as the peach, but is also used to correctly label almonds, another member of the rose family. The sumac family consists of mangoes on the fruit side of the house and pistachos on the “nut” side of the house.

Culinary nuts – whether true nuts or merely drupes – are packed full of nutrition. They are some of the best natural sources of vitamins E, F, and G (docopherol, an antioxidant), and are rich in protein, folate, fiber, and essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium. Nuts also contain the all important fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acids, which are critical for growth, physical and mental development, healthy hair and skin, blood pressure control, immunological responses and blood clotting. In addition, the fats in nuts for the most part are unsaturated fats, which do not elevate blood cholesterol levels like saturated fats.

Unripe Almond

Highly nutritious and abundant in nature, nuts have been incorporated into Asian cuisines for their flavors, their health benefits and for the textural changes that they bring to dishes. Finely ground, nuts become an important base or thickener of sauces and curries. Whether a Georgian Garlic and Walnut Sauce, its Afghan cousin Cilantro Sauce – or a Chinese influenced Spicy Peanut Sauce, the use of nuts as a major flavor in sauces and curries is pan-Asian.

When used in layered pilafs, nuts can play a central or supporting role and in a moderate grind, nuts offer a bit of crunch and an earthy, savory flavor when added to baked pastries and puddings.

Used whole or roughly chopped as in the western Asian candied Churchkela and Bastegh desserts, nuts help balance the sweetness of the honey or dried juice that encase them. By the handful, as used in Southern Chinese, Vietnamese or Indo pacific cuisines, nuts offer a blast of hard texture and strong flavor to complement stir fried meats and vegetables.

Chestnuts, although widely available, seem to be particularly favored in Northern Asia – from the Black Sea to the Koreas – with them most frequently being added to stews and soups – or chopped and used in desserts.

Another northern-favored nut is the beech nut which when dried and ground becomes the basis for beech flour used to make noodles, bread, dumplings and pancakes.

Nut oils are very important to world cuisines from peanut oil to the more delicate walnut oil, candlenut oil to coconut oil to palm oil – it would be difficult to cook authentic Asian food without these products.

Although nuts are now cultivated far from their centers of origin, Western and Central Asia are once again the home of many old world nut species from the common walnut, almond, pistachio to the beech nut – all are thought to have originally incorporated into foods in Asia. Cashews are a New World import to Asia, having originated in Brazil. Although it is impossible to determine where exactly candlenuts come from, the extensive incorporation into Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific cuisines suggests this area as a point of origin.

As an important food for many species of animals, culinary use of nuts is indeed older than human civilization itself and likely formed an important part of the diets of our hominid ancestors. Whether true nut or drupe, nuts have been nourishing generations of humans across the millenia. Think on that as you lace into the holiday peanut brittle – if you dare. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Mixed Nuts © Bronwyn8 |; photo of Unripe Almond © Tempic |