Photo by Lance Catedral / CC BY-SA 2.0

A nut closest to the macadamia in flavour and texture, pili nuts (scientific name: Canarium ovatum) are grown as a year-round crop primarily in the Bicol region of Visayas province – holding the distinction that, though pili nut trees as ornamental plants can be found throughout Southeast Asia and the Polynesian Islands, it is solely in the Philippines that pili nuts are produced and processed for commercial consumption

From as far back as 1958, pili nuts have been heralded as a “promising fruit of the Philippines” with “great potential for development as a major export crop.” To increase domestic yields, however, pili nut farmers have long faced the same great hurdle – when can a mechanized pili nut cracker finally surpass traditional harvesting techniques?

Pili nuts are deliciously buttery, and in the common ways they’re prepared, are an incredible contrast of textures and tastes – making them the best type of nut to candy, in my not-only-beer-goggled opinion

According to a Philippine Department of Agriculture report by Rosita Imperial for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the pili fruit is technically “a drupe, 4 to 7 cm long, weighing 15 to 45 g. Its skin (exocarp) is smooth, thin, shiny and turns purplish black when the fruit ripens; the pulp (mesocarp) is fibrous, fleshy and greenish yellow in colour, and the hard shell (endocarp) within protects a dicotyledonous embryo (or kernel, and what everyone knows as the actual pili nut).”

From kernel to seed, another ‘tree of life’: akin to the coconut, Filipinos have taken to affectionately calling pili “The Majestic Tree.” Everything from the pili nut tree finds valuable use, and there is a wealth of information on the BAR’s AgFishTech Portal.

Its kernels (the actual nut), for instance, when roasted and ground make a decadent addition to homemade ice cream, worked into icing for cakes and pastries, as a cannoli-type filling for Bicolano confectionaries and sweets such as pili marzipan and fruit-and-nut bars.

Whole kernels can be eaten raw (though its shelf life is very short), or processed as roasted, fixated (bagged with nitrogen as a natural preservative) or sugar-coated kernels. Candied pili nuts fall into this last category.

Pili nut oil makes a delicate dressing for light ensaladas, and is used in a personal favourite, Spanish-style tinned sardines. Of the pili’s pulp (surrounding the shell that protects the kernel), Bicolanos are known to love dipping fibrous chunks into pungent guinamos (Visayan fish sauce), delivering boatloads of salty tang in every mouthful, perfection followed by a spoonful of steamed white rice. Young pili shoots and leaves are harvested for summer salads and relishes.

As a dual-purpose windbreaker and shade tree, the pili’s evenly spread branches make them excellent additions to farms growing abaca, coffee, cacao, bananas and papayas for their foliage.

Nutritional breakdown: about 70% fat (of which about 45% are monounsaturated and 35% are saturated), 12-14% protein, and 8% carbohydrate

How they grow: pili nut trees are native to tropical climates, and do nut survive in habitats with even the slightest occurrence of morning frost. They particularly thrive in the Bicol region because of the area’s mineral-rich volcanic soils; in the vicinity of Mount Mayon (the ‘perfect cone’), pili nut trees dot the landscape. Tall (an average of 20 metres) and symmetrically shaped, these evergreens are sturdy and resistant to typhoon winds; they’re also the source of a resin known in the cosmetics industry as Manila elemi, a pili tree by-product worth over US $500,000 in export value.

Further reading:

• What Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Ralph Lauren fragrances have in common. I never knew so much was in the bark of a pili tree! Also, I enjoyed flipping through this presentation more than I should have – so much great information hidden in powerpoint slides of the past (watch the transition to slide 17!)

• Promising Technologies for Pili Processing. I’d love to learn more about the state of these technologies in 2015, and bring unanswered questions forth to the maker movement!

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