India's Favorite Dry Fruits Are Not Indian
Image Credit: Almonds

So naturally, dry fruits hold a very special place in the hearts of Indians. Whether it is a wedding or a "mundan," dry fruits have become a prerequisite for nearly every special occasion that's deemed worthy of a mention. But what many of us may not know is that most of these dry fruits, which we tend to consider "homegrown" and "desi," are actually foreigners. They made their way over to India from South America and elsewhere during the colonial period, which makes for an interesting story.

First off, we have everyone’s favorite dry fruit or nut: the almond. Who doesn't like Badam? The name "almond" refers to the edible seed, not the tree. What we've always considered one of the most quintessentially Indian foods is not Indian. The species is native to Iran and surrounding regions like the Levant, where some ancient remains were discovered. Almonds were once widely distributed along the Mediterranean coast, reaching Northern Africa and Southern Europe. The Levant (a region encompassing Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon) has evidence of wild forms of the domesticated almond. This domestication of almonds happened around the 3rd millennium BCE. Almonds were discovered in Egypt's most famous tomb—the one dedicated to Pharaoh Tutankhamen, or King Tut. (Yes, the cursed tomb, which dates from around 1235 BCE; his golden mask from the tomb is the most popular image of a pharaoh in modern times.) It is thought that these almonds were most likely imported from the Levant. Another example is Ibn al-Awwam’s 12th-century agricultural work, "Book on Agriculture," which has an excerpt about almond tree cultivation in Spain. Culturally as well, there are almost ten mentions of almonds in the Bible; one of these mentions describes it as "among the best of fruits," a statement that truly resonates with most people in the world.

Secondly, we have the Kaju. This was a heart-breaking realization for us: cashews are not Indian in origin but rather South American. Cashews, or "Anacardium occidentale," are from a tropical tree that is native to the far-off continent of South America, specifically north-eastern Brazil and south-western Venezuela. Similar to almonds, the name cashew is used for the edible seed rather than the tree. The seed is commonly consumed as a snack, eaten on its own, used in various recipes, or processed into non-dairy alternatives like cashew cheese, cashew milk, and even cashew butter. Though it originated in South America, it was spread throughout the world during the 1500s by (who else?) Portuguese explorers, who began exporting cashew nuts from Brazil all over the world. Eventually, between 1560 and 1565, cashews made their way to India when the Portuguese came to Goa, from where they spread to Africa and India. That's right, folks, the much-loved Kaju is not Indian. Can you imagine our sweet dishes without cashews?

Last but certainly not least, we have another member of the cashew family that's become a firm favorite: the pista, or pistachio. This is derived from a small tree native to Central Asia and the Middle East (modern-day Iran and Afghanistan), which is now grown in Southern Europe and North Africa. It came to India via the Middle East. Many archaeological discoveries show that pistachio seeds were a common food for humans going as far back as 6750 BCE. The earliest evidence of pistachio consumption dates back to the Bronze Age in Central Asia, in Djarkutan, modern Uzbekistan. In his writings, the Greek physician Dioscorides, who served during the Roman Empire, compared pistachios to pine nuts. The writings of Anthimus, a 6th-century Byzantine physician, from his manuscript "De observatione ciborum" (On the Observance of Foods), clearly indicate that the pistachio was well known in Europe during late antiquity. Ibn-Al-Awwam also mentioned pistachio tree cultivation in his 12th-century treatise, "Book on Agriculture." Archaeologists have found evidence from excavations at Jarmo in north-eastern Iraq of pistachio consumption. Even the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon contained pistachio trees during King Merodach Baladan’s rule around 700 BC. All of these examples show how old humanity's relationship with the pistachio is.

The journey of these dry fruits is compelling evidence that people, cultures, and cuisines keep evolving and adapting. And sometimes, they lead to terrific results that we fall in love with.