A shirtless, elderly South Indian man wearing a light coloured dhoti squats on the ground with his knees near his shoulders as he waves open-palmed to the camera. Unshelled roasted cashews and a grinding stone sit at his feet.

The day was a body bulging with the pregnancy of humidity. Breathlessly still, the air grew palpably heavy waiting to deliver its burden. Our pace slowed as if in sync as we wound along the narrow roads in southern Tamil Nadu. The dreamy pace could have lent itself to complete inertia had a hammock been near but instead, when we happened upon a cluster of cashew sellers clinging to the roadside, we stopped for a stretch and the chance to learn a bit about the lives of these people.

Creamy raw cashews, slightly charred, sit in an rough stone carved bowl, which sits on the dirt ground.
Raw cashews in the roasting process at a roadside roaster somewhere between Thanjavur (Tanjore) and Madurai.

We hadn’t realized that cashews grow in India. They are originally from Brazil but now India, along with Vietnam, each holds 40% of the global market share. About 2 million people are involved in the industry. Most work in processing facilities but approximately 200,000 are smallholding farmers with 1 to 10 acre plots throughout South India. While their crop is a luxury product with an estimated value of one billion (CAD) dollars most workers make less than a dollar a day.

We learned that cashews are a seed, not a nut, as most people think. They come from a tropical evergreen tree and are found in a small boxing glove shaped bit of anatomy known as the drupe at the base of the cashew apple fruit. Getting to the seed inside the drupe is laborious. The shell coating around the seed is poisonous (like poison ivy) and it must be roasted and cracked before you can eat the interior that we know as the cashew.

We visited several of the lean-to huts serving as kiosk stores and then we settled in to visit with a business that seemed to be owned by one family. We watched as a couple roasted the cashews in metal pots on open fires. When sufficiently toasted, or blackened actually, the pods were passed onto other family members to crack the shell and remove the inner seed. A woman squatted on the ground and used a blunt implement—it was too blunt to call it a knife—to press the blackened shells on a bit of rock. It was hard and dirty work. Strain lined her face.

An older woman nearby held a baby. Another younger woman took our money as we each bought a few kilos of their produce. The total worked out to a few dollars in Canadian currency. We were about to leave when I squatted down beside an older man to say goodbye and thank you. I think, I hope, he was the grandfather. He was as lean a person as I’ve seen in India—or anywhere. No meat on his bones, sunken temples, ribs for counting and yet he did not hesitate. He held out his hand and offered me all that he had; a precious few cashews.

A shirtless, elderly South Indian man wearing a light coloured dhoti squats on the ground with his knees near his shoulders as he extends his hand out to the camera and offers a palm full of freshly roasted cashew nuts.
A road trip through Southern India leads to a chance encounter with a family of cashew roasters.

As I took what he offered, I noticed his swollen clubs for fingers. Were they swollen from exposure to the poison of the shells or from multiple burns? I do not know. I smiled at him. I had only wanted to talk and ask for a photo but I took the still warm cashews from his blackened hands and ate the offering without hesitation. I could see my travel nurse cringing back in Canada. Public health warnings be dammed, I thought.

I put my hands together in prayer and said, Vannakom – the Tamil way of saying Namaste or “I bow to the light in you”. I wanted to honour him and his offering. Dignity has so little to do with station in life.

Now, whenever I see cashews, the cashew man’s face is there in my mind. Cashews and the man. The man and cashews. South India, my friends, the softness of the hills and the air that day along with the harshness of some people’s lives – it all melds into an indelible taste memory.

I developed our Cashew Coconut Ginger Bar recipe to remember this man and our brief but indelible connection always.


Note: A version of this story was originally published on Karen’s blog – Savour It All™. It is unsponsored content here and used with full permission.

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