Native to Central and South America, Malabar chestnuts are edible, nutritious nuts growing in football-shaped fruit pods. The smooth, medium-sized pods resemble cacao in texture and shape. Malabar chestnuts have a crunchy texture and nutty flavor, making them a delightful snack.
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What is a Malabar Chestnut?
Malabar chestnut (Pachira aquatica) is the nut of a woody oval fruit pod belonging to the Malvaceae (mallow) family.
Other common names include Guiana chestnut, Saba nut, Monguba (Brazil), Pumpo (Guatemala), and French peanut. The Malabar chestnut tree is also known as the Provision tree, Money plant, and Money tree.
This evergreen tree produces oval, medium-sized fruit pods with large seeds. The pods are 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) long and 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) wide. And they have a tough, fibrous, brown exterior that splits along longitudinal seams when ripe.
Each pod contains a thick protective layer with five valves carrying 10-25 nuts. The nuts are enclosed in a light brown membrane within a white, fleshy, and spongy coating. They are ivory to white and 0.4 -1.2 inches (1-3 cm) wide.
Malabar chestnuts have a mild nutty flavor with notes of peanuts and almonds (raw) or chestnut and macadamia (cooked).
The History of Malabar Chestnuts
Malabar chestnuts originated in Central America, South America, and Mexico.
Malabar chestnut trees grew in the tropical and subtropical regions, from southern Mexico to Guyana and Brazil, mainly in marshes, swampy areas, flood plains, and lowland rainforests.
The scientific name for the Malabar chestnut was influenced by its nativity. The genus ‘Pachira‘ is Guyanan, meaning ‘sweet water nut,’ and the specific name ‘aquatica‘ is due to the tree’s tendency to grow in or near water.
It’s believed that Malabar chestnuts spread to Asia in the late 20th century, where they were first introduced in Taiwan as ornamentals.
A famous legend narrates how Malabar chestnuts became a sensation in Taiwan. According to the story, a poor man discovered the tree in his garden and sold the edible seeds to make a fortune. Fen Shui masters also popularized the nut tree by associating it with good luck, wealth, and success.
Also, a Taiwanese driver braided the tree trunks and sold the trees in Asian markets. He got massive sales from the trees’ unique appearance. It was through this monetary association that Malabar chestnuts got the nicknames’ Money Tree’ and ‘Money Plant.’
Later, Malabar chestnuts spread to other East Asian countries like Japan, where they were marketed as ornamentals.
Today, Malabar chestnuts are found in America and Asia’s tropical, subtropical, and tropical regions. Only the Malabar chestnut trees growing in tropical areas produce fruits, and the seed pods have many culinary applications.
However, Malabar chestnuts are mainly marketed for their cultural value as a ‘money plant.’ They are grown outdoors as landscape trees or indoors as ornamental houseplants or bonsai trees.
What Does a Malabar Chestnut Taste Like?
A raw Malabar chestnut has a sweet, mildly nutty flavor akin to peanuts and almonds. But they can develop a bitter flavor if left on the ground for long.
Malabar chestnuts taste like potatoes when boiled, and the roasted nuts have chestnut and macadamia undernotes.
Due to their tasty nature, Malabar chestnuts are popular snacks. They’re also food additives in grain bowls, salads, smoothies, and baked foods.
How to Tell When Malabar Chestnut is Ripe
It’s easy to tell when a Malabar chestnut is ripe. Here are a few tips to help you distinguish a ripe and ready-to-eat Malabar chestnut:
|When ripe, Malabar chestnut fruit pods turn from green to dark brown (almost black).
|The pods will enlarge and burst when ripe to release the nuts. They may also fall to the ground, indicating they’re ready to eat.
|Ripe Malabar chestnuts have a mild-nutty taste similar to raw peanuts.
|The ripe nuts are slightly soft, crunchy, and chewy.
Can I Eat Raw Malabar Chestnuts?
Yes, you can eat this fruit in its raw form.
Once ripe, you can remove the nuts from the pods, pop them into your mouth, and enjoy the Malabar chestnuts as snacks.
Alternatively, add the raw nuts (whole) to your salad or grain bowl. You can also smash the tasty nuts and blend them into smoothies, ice creams, or yogurts. Some people use crushed Malabar chestnuts as toppings on brownies.
Cooking with Malabar Chestnuts
Malabar chestnuts have numerous culinary applications thanks to their sweet, nutty flavor.
Here’s how to prepare Malabar chestnuts before cooking:
- Remove their tough outer covering once the fruit pods have enlarged and split.
- Remove the white, fleshy protective layer to release the nuts.
- Soak the nuts overnight to loosen the seeds’ light brown covering.
- Peel off the skin.
Your Malabar chestnuts are now ready for cooking.
Roasting Malabar chestnuts is the best way to cook them. You only need to sprinkle a little salt on the nuts as you roast them in a frying pan or oven.
You can also grind the nuts to powder and use the flour in baking cookies, bread, or cake. Malabar chestnut flour also makes a delightful drink when mixed with hot water.
Due to their crunchy texture and nutty flavor, Malabar chestnuts are a great alternative to cashew nuts in many recipes. And they make a nice combo with spices like chile pepper, garlic, and ginger. They also pair well with coconuts, peas, tomatoes, and herbs like lemon grass, basil, coriander, and cilantro.
The young leaves and flowers of Malabar chestnuts are a delicacy with a sweet, lettuce-like flavor. Add them to salads, stir-fries, soups, and curries.
Here’s a recipe that features Malabar chestnuts:
Fried/Sauté Malabar Chestnuts: Fancy an easy-to-make snack? You can sauté soaked Malabar chestnuts in vegetable oil, add some seasoning, and cool them to make a yummy treat.
How to Store Malabar Chestnuts
You can store raw Malabar chestnuts on your counter or any cool, dry area for a few months. However, this will reduce the nut’s flavor and quality.
Alternatively, grind the nuts into flour and keep it in an airtight container. The flour will last for months if kept in a cool, dry spot.
Nutritional Benefits of Malabar Chestnuts
Apart from being tasty, Malabar chestnuts are nutrient-packed nuts.
They are an excellent source of fiber, protein, and vitamins. The fiber in Malabar chestnuts helps improve digestion, while protein is an essential building block in muscle, hair, skin, and bones.
Malabar chestnuts also contain antioxidant compounds that neutralize harmful radicals, preventing chronic diseases like cancer. Research shows that the functioning of these bioactive compounds is enhanced when the nuts are cooked or roasted.
Consuming Malabar chestnuts can help fight diabetes, as the bioactive compounds in the nuts lower blood glucose levels, regulating hyperglycemia.
In South America, Malabar chestnuts are significant in traditional medicine, as they’re used as anesthesia. In addition, the leaves make a topical to treat skin ailments. At the same time, the bark is used in preparing herbal tea to relieve headaches.
Where to Purchase Malabar Chestnuts
You can buy Malabar chestnuts from farmers’ markets or directly from the growers. The nuts are readily available since they have multiple harvest seasons.
You’re more likely to find fresh Malabar chestnuts in the market during their peak season from spring to summer. You can also purchase the nuts from online distributors or retailers like Etsy.