Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pinhão: Giant Pinenut

Running through my life in Rio like Manichaean undercurrents, yin and yang, light and dark, good and evil, joy and despair are the mico and the barata. Micos are the tiny marmosets that scamper past my open window in the mornings, pit-pattering over my neighbor's corrugated tin roof to leap into the mango tree nearby, all four limbs outstretched in a moment of pure exhilaration. They look like evil Jim Henson mini-demons with their downturned mouths and shocks of white hair shooting out on the sides of their furry heads, but they bring innumerable moments of pleasure into my life and release me from darker thoughts with their sudden chattering appearance. (The ones that hang around here are playful and shy to approach humans, unlike the scary micos that leap onto tables and bully tourists into giving up their snacks at Sugar Loaf Mountain, a popular vista point.) Their dark counterpoint, my great, trembling vulnerability here, are baratas, cockroaches, big brown tropical cockroaches with wings that I have neither learned to kill nor to react to in a calm, accepting manner. They terrorize me. There are moments when I begin to imagine cockroaches in every corner, imagine them flying in my window at night (it happened last night and I knew it wasn't just a fever-induced delirium), see them scuttling into my ear while I sleep, see them in the food I eat.

Blur your vision and it is a cockroach

Indeed, while preparing these pinhões (plural of pinhão), I began to see them as a big collection of cockroaches, hard-shells glistening ominously under the kitchen lights. But reason took hold and I kept on with the work of piercing, boiling, then peeling back their hard outer layers, imagining the nutty treasure inside, more than triple the size of the European and North American pine nuts I am used to. Peeling these nuts open is hard work, and at one point I considered banging them open with my flip-flop, the way people smash cockroaches here in one blow (whap!).

But my monkey patience persevered, and I ended up with a nice collection of waxy, yellow-brown nuts, slightly chewy like chestnuts can sometimes be. I snacked on several whole and coarsely chopped up the rest to layer on top of a squash puree I made.

Calling these mysterious beings "pine nut" may be misleading for those used to those teardrop nuts coming from arrow-shaped dark green conifers and their brown pine cones. The man at the market said they were "a type of Portuguese nut" in response to my curiosity, but these actually come from the Brazilian pine, pinheiro-do-paraná or pinheiro brasileiro, known by the scientists as Araucaria angustifolia. The tree is also an evergreen, but its leaves begin much farther up the trunk and its branches extend outwards in more of a radial pattern, like a big halo or green fireworks.

Image source

And look at the pine cones! They are grrreeeeen:

Image source

They remind me of durian, the infamous stinky fruit (like natto, a taste not to be savored by the masses, but adored by those strong of palate).

What else can I say about pinhão? The tree grows mostly in the more temperate and higher altitude regions in Brazil's southwest and is endangered due in part to the replacement of the Paraná pine on private lots with Canadian pines--think Christmas trees--whose wood has a higher market value (boo to decisions based solely on market value!!). It is a traditional food of indigenous tribes, much as pine nuts have been for North American tribes, and was also adopted with enthusiasm by Italian and German immigrants to southwest Brazil. People in the town of Lage in Santa Catarina state, are nuts (ahhh! couldn't help it, not sorry about it) about pinhão and eat it all sorts of ways: roasted, boiled, ground up with manioc flour, in a mayonnaise, pureed, gnocchi'd, eaten as a dessert or with dessert, on pizza, in a pancake, in a dish called entrevero mixing pinhão with meat and greens, etc.

Here is my attempt to give you some sense of scale:

More on pinhão (in Portuguese) from Slow Food Brasil, which is trying to raise awareness about this endangered nut, and from an informative blog called Brasil Sabor.

But just as I thought I was coming out of my delirium and ridding myself of disturbing associations (brown nut conjuring the terror of the flying cockroach), I open up my Portuguese-English dictionary from 1945 and read under the entry for pinhões do Brasil: "black vomiting-nuts." What?? Another rabbit hole I've fallen down. Turns out black vomiting-nuts, also known as the psychic nut, come from the Jatropha plant, sometimes a tree, sometimes a shrub, and that has recently been known as the great biodiesel hope. I could try to follow this new thread to its end, but as we know in the world of vegetable identification and Internet burrowing, there is never a finite end and so we must stop when our eyes begin to buzz and our heads begin to swivel around in search of micos to distract us from our mental labyrinths. Weeeeee, weeeeee, I hear their high-pitched calling now.... Let us end here for today.


bee said...

fascinating! wish i could get some here

eek said...

oh, wow!

Leif Hedendal said...

send me some!

Keith said...

Durian I can find across the street in netted bags in the freezer section of an Asian market. I have never seen these nut bearing green things anywhere. A shame. I would not buy durian anywhere, but this looks interesting

Martin said...

I just came across your website. It's very interesting especially because I just made a pinhão cake! I had some pinhões I had frozen last year. It was time to do something with them. The cake is tasty but nothing special, and I don't think there's much pinhão flavor even though I used two cups...

kale daikon said...

the pinhão cake sounds like a valiant effort. where did you get yours?

chiza said...

I love pinhao!!! I ate it so many times while visiting Brazil. I really would love to get some in the US. Anyone knows if it is possible? Is so good and healthy!!!

Unknown said...

I was looking for an English translation of "pinhão" and found your post. ;) I'm Brazilian and LOVE it!

alex said...

My wife buys these all the time on a specialty Chinese grocery store.
Good stuff but boy, it's a pain in the ass to peel them out.. Same with the chestnuts, enough that makes me pass them.

A mistake my wife did was to cook them, freeze and forget... after several months, they became dry inside and then she did not let them hydrate after boiling them again..

I brought them to a boil again and left soaking overnight. They became good again.