Sunday, October 21, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 15: Macadamia Nuts

We have become accustomed here in the US to thinking of Macadamia nuts as Hawaiian, they are not!  Nevertheless they have entered Native diets in the islands and around Oceania to some extent; for example they have been substituted in nut relishes to serve with seafoods.  Actually they are native to Australia, and were formerly referred to as Queensland Nuts for this reason.   They have been an important part of Aboriginal Australian diets for thousands of years.  

The most important species of Macadamia , M integreifolia, in bloom

The genus Macadamia actually applies to 9 shrub/trees that are almost entirely indigenous to the island continent of Australia (there is one found in Sulawesi and one in New Caledonia).  Of those two produce very high quality nuts; some of the other species that produce nuts are edible only after significant processing to remove toxins; some that the indigenous peoples of Australia discovered thousands thousands of years ago.  Some of the native names for the Macadamia include:  gydl, boombera and jindilli.   The first European to see a macadamia nut tree, at least according to Wikipedia, was botanist Allan Cunningham in 1828 (for the full time line on European exploitation of the plant, see the entry above).  The term "macadamia" may sound exotic, but, in fact, it comes from the name John Macadam, a Scottish born chemist for whom the genus is named.  I am going to stick to native time lines in the Pacific here.  

Green macadamia nuts in husk on tree under horticulture at Purdue University
Although Macadamia nuts were introduced in Hawaii in 1881 by Englishman William "Herbert" Purvis to supplement his sugar cane investment there, the first real commercial marketing of them was actually carried out by a tribal elder and leader of the Logan River Clan (an area that now covers territory of The Turrbal Aboriginal Nation), King Jacky in the 1880's.  The tribe collected and marketed the nuts to settlers, which provided them with a very good income as compared to other groups near by who were still struggling with the poverty that colonization brought.  King Jacky is regarded as the world's very first "macadamia nut entrepreneur."  In 1997 Australia once again surpassed the US as the world's top growers of their important indigenous nut.  Recent Australian research on the nuts also proved that they actually lower LDL cholesterol.

Close up a Macadamia Nut Flowers:  Open and Closed

As mentioned above these nuts were first introduced into Hawaii in 1881, and given their ancient history as an important food source in the parts of Australia, that seems such a short period of time by comparison!  Still it didn't take more than a few decades of promotion in the US to make these nuts popular, owed especially that for nut producing shrubs/trees they take a short period of time to mature; and they all came from Hawaii,leading to the misconception that they were actually native to the islands.  For full and very detailed history of the nuts in the islands and description of their processing, take a look at publication from the University of Hawaii.

As for nutrition, they are quite good for you.  As mentioned above they have a mitigating factor on LDL cholesterol.  They are high in a particular type of fat and low in protein; in fact, they have the highest amount of monounsaturated fat of any nut or seed on the planet!!  They are source of a easily passed fiber and have a fair amount of selenium, calcium, iron, potassium, and B vitamins.  But, like any other nut out there, a allergy to them results in similar reactions to peanuts and sends the consumer into anaphylaxis.  They are also highly toxic to dogs!  Because they are used a great deal in beauty products in the form oil, people with allergies to nuts have to especially vigilant in reading packaging on every beauty product they intend to purchase.

Culinarily, most people either encounter them in cookies or other similar baked goods or as a snack nut alone or with mixed nuts.  The oil is growing in popularity in cooking from everything to salad dressings to dipping oil (as above).  Chocolate covered macadamias are also extremely popular (also, as above) and flavored macadamia nuts are also popular in a variety of flavors from fruit flavor to spicy Hawaii they even have Spam flavored macadamias!  Of course they do!  In their native Australia they are used to make a nut soup that is a substitute for Almond Soups brought from the British Islands and in Hawaii they even put them in sushi rolls.  They are also tossed into other types of rice dishes and thrown into relishes and salads; they are particularly good in tropical slaws that also contain coconut.  They also make a nut change of pace ingredient in traditionally nut laden affairs like fudge and quick breads--and good really well with banana.  Macadamia nut ice cream is popular in the Islands.  In savory dishes they make a great sauce for seafood and make a great South Pacific pesto.  Just use your imagination...they can go anywhere a pecan can go!

I wasn't kidding!

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