Cashew Nut Production
Ja Dee’s house is in the village of Ban Rai Yai just outside the town of Neua Klong in Krabi Province, Southern Thailand. In front, are several large canvas sheets spread with light olive-brown pods which look something like overgrown kidney beans. From inside the house comes the unmistakable and tantalising aroma of roasting cashew nuts, and through the front window, I can see the young daughter of the house pulling a large tray of the golden brown nuts out of the oven in sweltering conditions under the tin roof.
Sweet and creamy in texture, cashew nuts make a versatile ingredient for sweet and savoury dishes alike, as well as a popular snack, salted or plain.
Like most people, I have eaten cashew nuts my whole life, yet never stopped to consider how and where they grow, let alone the long, labour intensive process necessary to bring them to the
From tree to table
Cashew nuts are a large crop of Southern Thailand and grow mainly in the provinces of Nakorn Sri Thamarat, Krabi and Ranong. Each individual nut emanates from the end of a fleshy red fruit. The cashew fruit which can be eaten raw – it is slightly sour and leaves the mouth feeling dry – is used more frequently in local curries and stir fries, or is discarded. The nut, which is encased in a hard shell, is harvested and sold for processing.
The first step is to dry the pods in the sun for around three days, making sure to gather them in if the skies cloud over. The flesh of the nut is encased in a layer of rubber-like substance which is very acidic and sticky and must be removed it can be eaten. Skin
contact with substance causes an uncomfortable burning sensation, so it is important that the nuts be as dry as possible before the next step in the process – the burning.
After a cooling glass of iced water, I am still feeling uncomfortably warm on this sunny April morning, as Ja Dee leads me around the side of the house to the burning pits. A man, covered form his feet, encased in rubber boots to head, wrapped in a sarong leaving only a narrow slit for his eyes, works with a rake tending to the hell-
like pits which flame and smoke as the acrid rubber coating around the nuts burns to a blackened shell. I can only imagine how it would feel to work in such an inferno.
Nothing is wasted, Dee explains. The black charcoal-like substance in the pits in fact the discarded shell used to insulate the fire and keep them at the correct temperature.
Once removed form the fire, each batch of nuts is left to cool.
The next step, chipping off the charcoal, takes place in the adjacent roofed area, open sided for maximum air-flow, yet with low eaves to stop the winds which, sweep across this low flat countryside criss-crossed with mangrove swamps, blowing the
husks away before they can be collected for insulation.
Each nut must individually handled by one of the workers crouching on cement platforms and using iron implements to patiently tap away at the kernel to remove the shell.
The resulting product is finally recognisable as a cashew nut, covered in a mottled reddish-brown, papery inner shell. I taste the raw cashew. As Dee points out, it is not unpleasant, but lacks the sweetness and crunch I associate with cashews.
To achieve the desired taste and texture, the nuts are then roasted by Dee’s daughter on large trays at temperatures of 230-250ºC for 30-40 minutes. It’s hot work.
Once roasted the nuts are sold, either with the outer skin still attached at a lower price, or skinned and golden at a higher rate. Dee sells the nuts wholesale to local traders who come to buy at her door, and also sends them on order throughout Thailand.
A village industry
The workers at Rewadee Nuts are largely women and children. They are paid by the kilo for the nuts they shell using just a short iron rod for breaking up the burnt shell and gloved fingers to remove the broken shards. They earn 23B per kilo which takes around an hour to shell.
The workers come and go at will. If they have the time – and inclination – they work to earn extra income for their families, or, in the case of the kids, pocket money to spend as they like. “The children enjoy working here,” explains one of the mothers. “They can help their families by earning money for school fees and books during their holidays, and at the weekends, they can make money to buy the sweets and toys they want. They are very proud to be able to help out, and it really teaches them the value of money. When they have spent hours of their free time earning their pocket money, they really think carefully about how they will spend it.”
The women are also grateful for the opportunity to socialise with neighbours while earning extra housekeeping money during the hours that suit them. Thus Rewadee Nuts is not only a successful business for its owner, but helps the whole community to increase their incomes.
Local success story – housewife to head honcho
Ja Dee is proud of her business, and justifiably so. Twelve years ago, she began with nothing more than “the sarong I wore”, and has built a successful business, selling nuts all over Thailand.
A housewife with young children, she wanted her own house and income and had the idea of processing the nuts the area on a commercial scale. And she is hands on - up at dawn and on site until dusk, Dee is involved in each step of the process from the
purchasing of raw stock to filling the buyers’ orders.
A one woman quality control department, she supervises all her workers, checks each batch of the finished product, and keeps a close eye on the takings. Like many of the housewives in her area, Dee is a natural manager, but unlike most, had the vision and
courage to back herself to become a successful businesswoman.
Ja Dee extended us the usual Southern Thai hospitality; my family, friends and I left Rewadee Nuts laden with samples of the product and she assures me she would be more than happy to welcome any guests interested in seeing the cashew process first