Caju is a fruit which is native to Brazil. In pre-colonial times, it was called acajú by the Tupi people and used both for food and medicinally by them and later by Africans that had escaped slavery. The early Portuguese colonizers called it caju, and it was later transliterated into English as cashew. People in the US are familiar with the nuts and tend to be surprised when we find that a fruit used to come attached to them.
But did you know that the treat you’re enjoying actually has to be steamed and processed from a tough outer shell that is so totally and completely toxic that laborers that work with the raw materials suffer burns and skin rashes and may eventually develop painful and unsightly skin rashes?
Yeah, me neither.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Like açaí, caju is actually a really refreshing treat (when it’s not trying to kill you)!
1. Caju in a Cup
When you arrive to any bakery or lunch spot in Brazil and make your order, you’ll be presented with a list of juices and asked what you want to drink. Perhaps you’ll go with what you know and say “suco de laranja, por favor,” content with a cup of orange juice just like back home.
Or perhaps you’ll want to go a little more exotic: “Suco de abacaxi,” you’ll request, not knowing that it’s actually pineapple. Your friend will tell you after you’ve made your order. In an effort to save face and try something new, you’ll change your order with the swiftness: “Não–pare, pare! Desculpa…” As you finger down the list you stop on something you’re sure you’ve never had in your life. “Suco de caju, por favor,” you’ll say. More than likely, your friend will give you the thumbs up on a drink well chosen.
After a few minutes, your waiter will bring you a cup of white-ish juice (more solid looking if you had the juice made com leite, or with milk). When you suck from that straw a parade will pass and congratulate you for having had your first ever taste of caju. You’ll wonder if you can mix alcohol and caju and your friend will inform you that yes, you can.
You can stop right there, or you can let your curiosity take you further down the caju hole. Travelers with a taste for adventure, please read on.
2. Caju in Your Mouth
This isn’t the gross out part. This is actually the part where your cultural studies teacher gives you a gold star for exploring culture beyond the book. After your time at the restaurant (and subsequent times wherein you ordered more and more caju juice) you will find yourself in an open-air market called a feira. You’ll look around and see some fruits you’re familiar with already and some fruits that look like they came out of J. K. Rowling’s imagination–some happy fruits you may find in The Burrow with the Weasleys and others that look like they were created to sustain Lord Voldemort himself.
You’ll look around and eventually your friend will point out the raw fruit that you love so much in juice form. Holding the orange-red-yellow fruit in your hand, the easily-bruised squishy thing with a coiled knob on its head, you’ll yearn to try and juice it yourself. For about six reis, you’ll be able to take home 6-8.
At home, you’ll wash the caju and cut off the stem. You’ll slice into it with a sharp knife (it gets messy if you do it with a dull knife) and place the slices into the blender. You might try a slice on your own and blanch when it’s bitter and tart, but somehow maintains a refreshing quality. Your friend will give you a pinch of salt to try it with and you’ll be ever thankful.
You’ll blend, you’ll drink, you’ll be merry, you’ll probably consider opening up a store dedicated to caju. And you’ll wonder what the seed attached to the fruit tastes like. And in that moment, you’ll learn why curiosity killed the cat–or at least why it burned its lips. Stop reading here if you’re allergic to itchy and ugly because just like Degrassi, it goes there.
3. Beware the Poison of Caju!
When you bite into the shell, first you do it to see if it will give way to your teeth. When you notice that it will yield, you’ll bite harder into it. And then a thick oil will ooze from the cracks you’ve made. At first contact with the oil, you will notice that it’s BITTER. Hopefully you take the hint. If you don’t, you’ll only worsen the ordeal. As the bitter liquid spreads in your mouth, you will begin to feel a burning sensation and *in my Tyrion Lanister voice* your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.
When you bite into the shell you are essentially ingesting the oil that gives poison ivy and poison oak it’s POW. You’re sucking poison ivy if that helps you contextualize it any better. The picture is only after 2 days and not as much pain because I’ve got cat-like agility and the ability to sense danger a
mile centimeter away. Searching the internet, I’ve seen worse.
For me, my lips were tender at first and then they developed a reddish crust that hates being aggravated so it was difficult to speak because they would crack as I move my lips. The outer parts of my lips are dry/ashy. Two days of this. The rest of my body feels itchy at random times and I’m not sure if it’s placebo or if the oil spread somehow (despite the fact that I took a shower and cleaned my mouth with toothpaste and soap almost immediately).
I haven’t gone out for two days because
I’m lazy I feel as though I’ve been kissed by a dementor. My advice to you: AVOID THE RAW NUT AT ALL COSTS! Make sure you cut the fruit and not the seed and that you discard the seed safely and away from children and pets.
Thanks for following my adventure! I hope my pain and suffering has taught you a valuable lesson: “Stay away from strange nuts!”