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Nuts and Chestnuts
Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 13, 14, 15, 16, 37, and 38
ALL NUTS have many important roles in the Chinese culinary. However, before discussing them it is important to know that though not as common among Chinese, not everyone can eat some or all kinds of nuts, particularly tree nuts. That said, before serving nuts to anyone, ask if they have any nut allergies. Those who are allergic to nuts can not eat anything with even a smidgen of nuts in the dish. Nor can they consume any nut derivative such as peanut or any other nut oil. They can not even eat anything cooked in the same pan with nuts or cooked in a pan that was previously used for nuts. To use such a pan, it must be washed thoroughly and dried before it can be used for their food. For some even that is not good enough, they need to use a pan never used to cook nuts or any nut-related product. So be forewarned; for those allergic, nuts can be lethal.
Tree nuts are the topic of this article. Did the Zhejiang poet Li Yu (1611 - 1680 CE), who said mouth and stomach do more harm than good, have nuts in mind? We doubt that. He may have meant that poorly digested nuts can give a person a stomach ache as can eating many handfuls of them.
Some say eating nuts need watching because they are very high in calories. Maybe so, but they do lots of good because they have healthy fats and fatty acids. They certainly have another duality. They are both staple foods or fan when ground and used as a flour, and accompanying foods or cai when flavoring the fan in meat and vegetable dishes.
Nuts provide comfort and satiation when they reach the stomach. In earlier times before the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), the Chinese used nuts and seeds only to make oils, they did not use them for eating as is or for roasting and then eating them. The oldest oils, in alphabetic order because we do not know which oil was the first one ever used, are: cottonseed oil, rapeseed oil, sesame oil, soy oil, and sunflower oil. None of these, as nuts or seeds, became a food source for the Chinese until many dynasties later.
Literature first discusses the use of nuts eaten as the seed that they are during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). Then, they were reported as snacks and as foods added to various dishes. They were boiled, roasted, salted, dried, deep-fried, and/or cooked in vinegar, salt, or honey. By that dynasty, Chinese almonds, cashews, Chinese chestnuts, gingko nuts, hazel nuts, pine nuts, and pistachios were popular. About a thousand years later came the use of peanuts, almonds, and walnuts.
To differentiate specifics about kinds of tree nuts, time, and technique of their use, what follows is a discussion of the more popular ones from a culinary perspective, in alphabetic order.
ALMONDS AND CHINESE ALMONDS are not one and the same. The latter most often are mislabeled and are the insides of the pit of the apricot. These nuts are confusing in name and in fact in older Chinese literature, and even now there is confusion in more current Chinese cookbooks. One reason may be because the apricot is called xing, the almond known as xing he.
In ancient times, to complicate things further, all nuts resembling these were usually the kernel, that is the nut inside the stone or pit of either the apricot or the peach. There were no almonds in early China. They came to China rather recently and their use is still not common but becoming more so.
Apricot kernels came to China from Turkestan, Mediterranean areas, and elsewhere in Central Asia. They, too, were not indigenous to China; but the peach was. These tree nuts and others were first gathered and used for oils, then later on they were pounded and used as a flour. When their use as the nut came into being is uncertain. Use as a flour probably started in the 2nd century CE. Apricot kernels were cultivated in China by the start of the Tang Dynasty in 618 CE. Almonds, as the western world knows them, were rare at that time. Apricot and peach kernels (Prunus armeriaca and Prunus persica, respectively) plus the almond (Prunis dulcis), though from different kinds of trees, are all now called almonds. There is less confusion with the kernels from peaches, probably because the peach is called tao in Chinese.
Still, there are many questions about all of these nuts. For example, different years or dates are given for when the apricot and when the almond came to China. It is thought that the Chinese almond came some time after the time of Christ while the so-called true almond’s arrival was hundreds of years later.
A culinary question is which one to use in a particular recipe. There are dozens of different Prunis species and ordinary folk are not botanists. Those that are, know that the almond is botanically Prunus amygdalus or Amygdalus communis. Cookbooks do not use botanical names; hence the confusion as most often, they call these kernels 'almonds;' packages sold in Asian markets do likewise.
Other than visual and botanical differences, apricot kernels taste bitter, their taste coming from their prussic acid content. The Chinese know not to eat too many at any one time because in large quantities they can be toxic. Maybe the poet Li Yu meant the bellyache was from this acid intake. Almonds, on the other hand, are sweet. Some call the bitter almond bei xing and the sweeter one nan xing, but not everyone makes this distinction.
In Manchu times, that is during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), all nuts were popular when sugared. Most often, they were eaten whole and as snacks, sometimes pounded into flour, used either way when baking, and sometimes made into almond tea. By then and even before, the Manchu rarely pressed and used these nuts for their oils. Almonds and apricot kernels can be salted, were used in cakes and cookies, and made into popular soups and teas.
Medicinally, the kernel of the apricot is recommended for eliminating phlegm, relieving coughs, and healing sore throats. Practitioners of Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) find them valuable when treating intestinal constipation. Almonds promote digestion and are good for the lungs. TCM practitioners do not recommend them for those with diarrhea or those who retain phlegm caused by wetness colds.
CASHEW NUTS are recent arrivals to China, probably coming with the Portuguese via Macao. Their origins are from Brazil and elsewhere in tropical South America. Now, they are also coming from Malaysia where they were planted some four hundred or so years ago.
Botanically known as Anacardium occidentale, the Chinese call the cashew yao guo shu. Their popularity is increasing, and they are reasonably inexpensive. That is certainly true when compared to prices elsewhere in the world. Cashews are sold after blanching or boiling, but can be found raw, roasted, or ground into something akin to peanut butter.
The Chinese like theirs fried, more accurately oil-blanched, then added to main dishes. Their use is most often in recipes that traditionally use peanuts, and more modern ones that use walnuts. The cashew nut is respected for its replenishment of energy. Some TCM doctors recommend them to their aging patients telling them to eat a handful a day. As an admonition, they advise those who have had a stroke not to eat them.
CHINESE CHESTNUTS, known botanically as Castanea mollissima, are hard-shelled and found in triplets inside a hairy exterior. Indigenous to China, they are called li shu or li guo. This nut may be China’s oldest tree nut. Some call them mao li meaning hairy chestnut, others refer to them as ban li or board chestnut because their shells are wood-like and flat as a board on one side. Similar to other nuts, there are many different species of the Chinese chestnut. They were known in Han times and were found recently in these very early tombs. Some were radio-carbon dated from 500 BCE.
There are written reports of the ancient Chinese roasting the Chinese chestnut with molasses by putting them in hot sand. There were other early ways to cook them including boiling and steaming them. They were important early energy sources as were Chinese apricots, hazelnuts, jujubes, peaches, and persimmons. Over the years, this tree nut has been consumed fresh, salted, sugared, pickled, and in syrup, also sun-dried, and of course cooked in any number of liquids. It was ground into flour and for centuries used that way in a popular dessert called Peking Dust.
Chinese friends advise that the best Chinese chestnuts come from the Hopei and Shensi provinces. One does need sophisticated taste buds to tell their origin. They are enjoyed not just as food but also in museums when viewing their very old shells. One sees their ancient uses there as pitchers, spoons, wine cups, and more. These days, the Chinese chestnut is used in many soups and main dishes. They are becoming popular in stir-fried ones because recently they have been packaged cooked and in liquid in a retort-like many-layered pouch.
The Chinese chestnut is used frequently by Chinese medical professionals when treating problems of the kidney. They say they aid digestion, strengthen muscles, help the stomach and spleen, and stop diarrhea. They also recommend them as a poultice, advising people to crush them and spread them on sprains and external areas that seep blood.
COCONUTS were known in China as early as the 2nd century BCE. Reports of their popularity were frequent. They were grown extensively on Hainan Island and other places in the south of China. Records, circa the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) indicate much use of coconut milk, probably the liquid inside this tree fruit. Those very reports advise that coconut milk ferments as does liquid from rice, grapes, and other fruits, but that people drinking it do not get as intoxicated as from beverages made form these other foods. People do, however, get drunk form coconut liquor. But that, made from the flowers, does provide some kick. Botanically known as Cocos nucifera, the Chinese call the coconut ye zi or ye yi.
It is not easy to get at the meat of this nut for several reasons. They grow high up trees and to get at them, one needs to cut away lots of thick fiber. And, cracking their extremely hard shell is quite difficult. Getting at the milk is easier, just puncture two of the three depressions at one end, and pour. These spots are softer than the shell and are easily broken through.
The Chinese use coconuts in many ways other than for beverages. They eat them fresh and dried, grate or grind their flesh, also boil the meat plain, sugared, or salted. Coconut is a popular snack in the south of China in all those ways and when used in sweet dessert-like items. It is used less frequently in main dishes.
TCM doctors consider the coconut cooling, particularly when fresh. They suggest using coconut to reduce a high fever and to help those suffering heatstroke and diabetes. They recommend the coconut for use by those vomiting, suffering from constipation or tapeworm. For aging clients, they suggest eating coconut twice a day to ward off senility.
GINGKO NUTS were the topic of a short article by Eva Koveos in the first issue of this magazine’s 1996 volume on page 8. View that article on our website: www.flavorandfortune.com and be aware that most articles and recipes from the first years of publication, 1994 - 1998, are available there.
Botanically this plum-looking fruit called Gingko biloba has been used throughout China since time immemorial. Gingko trees are said to be millions of years old, and are sometimes called living fossils. Even though they have been known so long, they were not mentioned in any early Chinese literature we could locate. When asking around, no one seems to know why not. It was not until the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) that the Chinese cultivated this tree, spoke of it in their poems, and put it to brush in their paintings. That, even though many of these trees were planted near temples thousands of years ago.
There are male and female gingko trees. Their rather smelly fruit comes only from the female one. The distinctive negative aroma comes from the flesh-colored pulp around the nut or stone. Ignoring its less than pleasant aroma, the Chinese remove their soft-shells, seed coat and all, then in either water or after burying them for a while, they wash and dry them. After either process, the less than agreeable smell is gone.
Raw, this nut has minimal to a slightly unpleasant taste. When boiled or roasted, things improve. Actually, the Chinese adore them roasted and consider them a delicacy. They also use them in soups, main dishes, and in sweet foods westerners consider desserts.
Called yin xing or bai kuo, the Chinese admire the unusual shape of the leaf and cultivate the trees for their nuts. Translated, the two names above mean 'silver apricot' and 'white fruit.' Another name is gong sun guo or 'grandfather-grandson fruit.' Not sure why that or the other names are used; and no one we spoke to knew either.
Gingko nuts are one of the eight items often found in Buddha’s delight, a common vegetarian dish. Considered neither hot nor cold, this nut does contain a small amount of toxicity. One Chinese medicinal literature item said that an adult should eat fewer than thirty, children should limit their intake to seven. Though edible, most sources say that no one should eat these nuts raw. Cooking reduces their toxicity.
TCM practitioners frequently suggest this nut for those who need relief from asthma. They also say it can reduce seminal emissions and work towards eliminating bed wetting among children. In addition, they say it helps patients with tuberculosis and reduces all-too-frequent urination, particularly in men. These medicinal doctors also suggest the ginkgo has value warming the lungs, supplementing one’s qi or vital energy, and relieving rapid respiration.
HAZEL NUTS are called zhen zi, also shan ban li. This means 'mountaintop chestnut.' This nut is not the filbert known in the western world, rather it is a nut of antiquity that was served at Han banquets, and maybe even before that. Some Chinese hazelnuts have been found in Han tombs and at Banpo Village near Xian. Various ones were radio-carbon dated between 4300 and 22 BCE.
Literature tells us that the best of the Corylus heterophylla or Corylus mandshurica come from Shensi Province. They come from a small tree-like shrub and are indigenous to China. Now and earlier, they are and were eaten fresh, salted, pickled, boiled, and roasted, as were many other nuts. As to taste, this nut is more similar to the water chestnut in taste and some may know it as the Siberian filbert. For reasons not known, they are not very popular as snacks, nor are they popular in main dishes.
They are used in TCM to invigorate body and brain, strengthen the stomach, and improve eyesight. They are used to restore sight among those losing some, reasons unknown, and to increase appetite, reduce internal parasites, and settle mood changes.
OLIVE NUTS, also called 'olive kernels,' are items needing explanation to almost everyone. They are the subject of many queries to this magazine and its website. The botanical name is Canarium album, and this food item is called gai lan or qing guo meaning 'blue-green fruit.' The olive nut is also known as huang lan, and bai lan, meaning 'yellow' or 'white fruit,' respectively. It is a nut from a tropical evergreen tree. In ancient times, these kernels were preserved in urns and pewter jars. Then and now, they are used to make great varnish for the hulls of ships. Today, they are still preserved, and used in this manner. They are sold in jars, and sold dried after their oil is rolled out. They are commonly used in stir-fry dishes.
People in and around Guangzhou use them often, and one of their favorite ways is in a dish called Fried Milk; seek it out in the recipe index. This main dish is popular in a few places in the north. The olive itself is used as a fresh fruit, but is quite sour when eaten raw. Some families steep them in honey before consuming them. They say that eating them raw freshens the breath.
TCM practitioners in the south of China recommend these astringent olives for health reasons. They believed them neither hot nor cold in the yin/yang dichotomy and they recommend them to relieve painful and swollen throats, reduce fevers and chronic coughs, and even for hangovers.
PEANUTS came to China from America, possibly as early as the 16th century. Though appreciated and featured at banquets, they were not cultivated in China until a couple of hundred years later. By the 19th century, they were more readily available and less expensive, so the use of the dozen or so different varieties became commonplace. People often ask which peanut came to China first, The smaller ones came first, larger ones came much later.
The Chinese like peanuts raw, boiled, roasted, and spiced as snack foods; and they adore them stir-fried and deep-fried. They use them for oil, as a flour, and as a seed. Medicinally, TCM doctors add them to their list of healthy foods recommended them for enriching blood, strengthening lungs, regulating the stomach, and increasing qi.
They recommend several tablespoons to relieve constipation, say to mash them in water and drink this to help get rid of dry coughs, and they suggest giving them to new mothers to increase breast milk or to give them to those whose milk has yet to come for the same reason. TCM doctors also suggest making a poultice to apply to areas affected by frostbite. Wisely, they tell their patients to not eat them when moldy because this mold causes liver cancer.
Called hua shen gren, some refer to these nuts as 'flower live rice.' They like their fragrant aroma, know they are neither hot nor cold, and that they aid the cardiovascular system. Botanists refer to these nuts as Arachis hypogaea.
PINE NUTS are the seeds that fall out of pine cones from many types of pine trees. The ones most popular in China are Pinus koraiensis. They are egg-shaped, light brown, and quite oily. Particularly liked also, are the ones from the white pine, Pinus arman. Pine nuts are thought to be sweet and to be extremely mild tasting.
These nuts are not new to China; they have been found in ancient tombs. Those at the Yangshao site burial site are dated as from four to five thousand years BCE. A few thousand years later, several different Pinus varieties were especially loved. Different kinds are used on banquet tables sugared or plain, raw or roasted, or otherwise cooked.
Some nut-bearing pine trees and the nuts that fall out of large pine cones were so revered, they were planted, as were gingko trees, around temples. One famous temple in Beijing actually bears the name of this nut, and is called 'Pine of the Seven Dragons.' A famous restaurant in Suzhou is called the Pine and Crane Tower Restaurant. We remember eating there and having the best dumplings ever. Each dumpling looked like a different fruit, all tasted divine. The fillings inside were not the same as the fruit represented, there was some play on words from some famous poetry, but we did not get it.
Called song zi ren, the Chinese like all pine nuts. They deem them neither hot nor cold, and consider them warm. They use them many ways including in sweets, glutinous rice dishes, congee’s, and cookies. These nuts, like most others, are dried, ground, and used as a flour to coat many savory main dish ingredients; they are used for sweet dishes and for some sauces.
The pine nut is revered medicinally, and said to moisten lungs and lubricate intestines. TCM practitioners believe they relieve constipation, help folks gain weight after an operation, and reduce a mild cough
Sold, as are most nuts, roasted and warm and on street corners, these nuts are made into many cakes and pastries, and put in many health-giving beverage decoctions and soups. Sometimes they are mixed with walnuts in pastries and in medicinals.
WALNUTS are another known Chinese nut, used both wild and cultivated. Botanically known as Juglans regia, and called hu tao by the Chinese, the walnut is sometimes referred to as 'foreign peach.' Some varieties probably arrived in China from Iran, probably via one of the many so-called silk routes. They also go by the name of 'Persian walnut.' At least four species are considered native to China; though not everyone agrees with this assessment.
For those that came from elsewhere, they probably did so soon after 220 CE when the Han Dynasty ended. Certainly by the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in 618 CE, many walnut trees were commercially grown in the north of China. They fast became popular and important, and were used in many ways from raw and solid to ground and liquid.
The Chinese eat walnuts raw, roasted, fried, sugared, and dried. They grind them into flour for use in beverages and baking. These nuts are sometimes used to extract their oil. Considered warm by nature, the Chinese like this nut’s shape as it looks like the brain, and they believe it is sweet.
TCM practitioners say it is good for the organ it emulates, and also believe it invigorates qi, enriches blood, nourishes muscles, benefits stomach and spleen, and blackens the hair.
Several recipes for one or more nuts follow. In many, if not most cases, a Chinese family would substitute one nut for another, and in a few instances, would use more than one nut in a particular dish. Medicinally, however, one nut is never substituted for another.
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