You have all seen them in supermarkets or adorning the top of cakes and pastries. We are talking about cashew nuts. But did you ever wonder where they come from and how they ended up on the market shelf?
Well I did, and I finally got a chance to go and see the whole process for myself. The cashew nut business is located in the Nua Klong province, just south of Krabi Town. The area had such a wonderfully smell, and the source of the delicious aroma was soon apparent as I jumped out of the car and was faced with thousands of cashews drying in the sun. We were introduced to Ja Dee, the owner of the business, and through her I learned a lot about how the nuts are processed.
First of all, the nuts are separated from their fruit and laid on mats to dry. The actual nut itself is encased in a very hard outer shell that is poisonous if eaten. So after drying, they are taken to a large furnace like pit and the casing is burned. The case is filled with a hard oily substance which fuels the fire to a tremendous temperature, but ultimately leaves it weakened enough to be cracked open.
I was then shown to a ‘cracking station’, which consisted of around a dozen local villagers banging away at the blackened nuts with short iron bars to extract the nuts inside. Even more interesting than the actual process itself were the people doing it. Ja Dee told me that the locals all came here to work when they felt to, not because they were under any obligation. They are paid by the kilo, so the more they work, the more they earn.
After they are shelled, the cashew nuts then get roasted in large gas-fired ovens. They are then sifted in wooden bowls to separate them into different sizes: in fact, whole cashews are more expensive than the split ones. They can be processed again to remove every trace of the papery outer skin that clings to the nut. The finished article can then be sold wholesale in large sacks to resellers, or to passing customers in smaller plastic bags.
The whole process takes around 4 days, from when the raw plant arrives to being ready for sale, and they are distributed all over the region – sometimes as far as Chiang Mai. The reason for this is that cashew nuts only grow in the South of Thailand. Krabi has some plantations, but a lot come from places such as Ranong and Nakon Si Thammarat. In Krabi there are 12 processing places such as the one owned by Ja Dee. The season for picking the nuts is relatively short – with March and April being the busiest times. So the nuts are bought in bulk and stored in huge sacks to keep the workers going all through the year.
Our hosts were so friendly and accommodating, and I realized we were getting a glimpse of this part of Thailand not a lot of people get to see. The workers were simple, poor people who spoke no English. These people were a refreshing change from the Thais that work in the tourist industry. In their factory, there was not one item of machinery to be seen – the whole process from start to finish is done by hand.
In true Thai hospitality, I was given a bag of still warm cashew nuts to take away with me, and I left my new smiling friends, grateful to having been given this glimpse into their lives.
For a more technical description of the cashew, read Jeffrey’s article http://asianitinerary.com/nature-series-the-cashew/