I was once on holiday in Goa, India and went to a cashew nut factory. We toured through the factory and had each process explained to us. We heard how the nuts are first removed from the shell by smashing each one manually, and that the oil around the nut is so toxic that it burns the hands of the workers, so they rub coconut oil/grease on their hands as a barrier. The whole nuts that emerge from the shell are sorted away from the broken ones; whole ones are more valuable, so each smash of the anvil makes a difference to the pay. All day long the women and workers squat on their haunches breaking and peeling and sorting the nuts in a dark and hot, and dusty building. Mountains of cashew nuts are piled in heaps, beautiful in colour and texture, the smell of roasting nuts filled the air, and I am mesmerised. I am jolted from my blissful trance when I focus on the workers, I feel their suffering, their poor aching limbs, and the desperation of their lives hits me. They smile with black or toothless grins as we stop to watch them, they are covered in dirt and wear ragged cloth on their bony limbs, but they do not stop working, clamping each nut, peeling and shelling, then discovering its worth. Their hands are black and greasy from the coconut oil; blisters show where the barrier didn’t cover the skin but each one I am told is grateful and happy to have such a good job. I wonder to myself if this can be true.
Since that experience I have never once eaten cashew nuts, especially whole ones, without thinking of those workers and that factory in Goa. Knowing where ingredients come from and how it got to be here in a bag in a supermarket near me, fascinates me and gives me a fuller understanding of how the world goes round and how the people in the world live and work.
That’s what gives meaning to the food I prepare.