Candlenuts: Fire and Flavour

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The candlenut bears a striking similarity to its cousin, the macadamia nut – both have cream coloured skins and similar rough textures. But the candlenut is more popularly used as a spice in Asian dishes to flavour curries, condiments and marinades.

The candlenut is also known as buah keras, which literally translates to hard fruit, and originates from the flowering species Aleurite moluccanus (commonly known as the moluccana tree) that is found in the tropics and other warm climates.

The tree can grow 25 metres in height and bears a green or brown fruit. Removing the white-coloured pulp or flesh from the fruit reveals the candlenut, which is usually de-shelled after harvesting. Candlenuts are sold all over Southeast Asia, as well as Hawaii and New Zealand.

A variety of uses

Also known as the kemiri, candleberry and Indian walnut, this ingredient is typically used in traditional medicine because it helps alleviate digestive problems. The candlenut is also a source of unsaturated fat – that is, the good kind of fat.

Other interesting medicinal uses for candlenuts include making a paste from candlenuts to treat sore joints, headaches or mouth infections. Candlenut plantation producers also process the candlenut to make hair treatment or hair stimulant.

A typical plantation can produce anything between 30 kilograms and 80kg of nuts, of which up to 20 per cent of the weight is oil. Because of the high oil content, some communities process the nut into candles, which is where the name comes from.

Fishermen in Hawaii find the candlenuts useful as a tool to help them fish. They chew the hard nut and spit out the contents into the seawater to help remove reflections that in turn improves underwater visibility.

Cooking with candlenuts

Raw candlenuts have a bland yet soapy flavour and a slight bitterness that is cooked away. While it shares the oily, waxy and brittle texture with its macadamia cousin, it is important to remember that you cannot eat raw candlenut. It contains saponins and phorbol, both of which are toxic when ingested and can cause nausea, vomiting and discomfort to the digestive system.

When cooking with candlenuts, most recipes will advise toasting or roasting them before they are crushed or roughly chopped and added to a dish. Roasted candlenuts are much nicer to eat as they have a similar taste to macadamias, as well as an almond-like flavour. Some recipes recommend pounding the nuts with a pestle and mortar or blending them to achieve a grainy or smooth texture. The crushed nuts are then added to different pastes and sauteed in oil until cooked, helping to thicken sauces. However you prepare them, you can use a touch of sugar to balance out the bitterness.

A common place to use candlenuts is in your satay sauce. This Balinese version has a long list of ingredients but will be worth the effort to flavour your grilled meats. Another method is to shave off slivers of the nut and adding the roasted pieces to curries or even as a garnish over rice dishes. The candlenut is also an important ingredient in inamona, a condiment for Hawaiian poke. The roasted candlenuts are mixed together with seaweed and chilli then seasoned with salt and pepper.

Candlenuts tend to turn rancid easily if not stored properly so when buying them pick those that are light beige or cream coloured, rather than brown. Use them as soon as possible after purchase. If you need to store them, place them in an airtight container or in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator.

A few more recipes

If you’ve never cooked with candlenut before, give this Indonesian Sambal Kemiri recipe a go. It’s cooked as an accompaniment to soto ayam (yellow spicy chicken soup) or lontong kikil (spicy soup with compressed rice cake). Unusually for an Indonesian dish, the recipe uses habaneros, but you can substitute them with bird’s eye chillies or cili padi. Just bear in mind to let the chillies cool off before you peel off their skins to avoid burning your fingers.

If you are after a less fiery flavour, try this pork stir-fry dish that uses candlenuts as a spice in its paste. It’s an easy recipe to follow – you just blend all the spices together into a paste and toss it with the pork. The quick recipe can be found here.

Fish also pairs well with a thick, nutty sauce. Saute the spices in a shallow pan and then spoon the resultant sauce over your grilled fish. Squeeze some lime juice for a tangy finish – perfect!

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