Pistachios: the “smiling nut”

February 26 (next Tuesday) is World Pistachio Day. (Un)surprisingly, it’s also National Pistachio Day in the US, which gives us twice as many reasons to sing the praises of the “happy nut.”

Fun Facts About Pistachios:

Pistachios aren’t nuts. Not botanically, at least. A member of the cashew family, pistachios are the seed (the “culinary nut,” to be precise) of the drupe (fruit) of the pistachio tree. The pistachio is also botanically related to mangoes, sumac, and (get this) poison ivy. Luckily, pistachios don’t resemble any of those particular relatives, and are unlikely to give you an itchy rash.

Happy and smiling in the ‘Stans. Pistachio trees are native to Asia Minor and the Middle East (think the ‘Stans: Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan; along with Iran and Syria), and are still grown there today. Iran produces more pistachios than any other country; the US crop (mostly grown in California) comes in second. In China, pistachios are colloquially called the ‘happy nut.’ In Iran, they are called the ‘smiling nut.’

Pop! No snap or crackle needed. The fruit of the pistachio tree has a hard, cream-colored outer shell. The seed (aka nut) has a rose-colored skin and light green (pistachio-colored) flesh. The fruit ripens so “energetically” that the nut outgrows its shell, which abruptly splits partly open. This helps explain why the pistachios you buy at the store look as though they are partially cracked open. This is known as dehiscence, and it happens with an audible pop.

More about that pop: legend has it that lovers are granted good fortune if they embrace beneath the trees to hear the pistachios crack open on moonlit nights.

What do you do with pistachios? I mean, the whole point of talking about them here is to talk about how to eat them, right? Often eaten whole, fresh or roasted and salted, pistachios are also often used in desserts (most famously in pistachio ice cream, Italian spumoni, frozen Persian treat Bastani (pictured), and historically in Neapolitan ice cream).  And of course, pistachios are the garnish of choice on sweet, delicate baklava, encased in crunchy pistachio nut brittle, or baked into cookies and homemade biscotti.

With more savory dishes in mind, pistachios also figure frequently in Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Asian recipes.  Pistachios go best with veal, pork and poultry, but they pop up in a wide range of recipes.  Some favorite pistachio recipes include Pistachio Pesto, this amazing Saffron Curry Sauce, adding some crunch to green salad, or Pistachio Herbed Chicken with Mustard Cream Sauce.

Good for you, too: Heart-healthy pistachios have lots of phytosterols, which can help reduce cholesterol. This tree nut is made up of about 90 per cent unsaturated (good) fat, which adds flavor and makes them a highly satisfying snack. They also contain many antioxidants which aid the heart and body. A great source of dietary fiber, pistachios are also among the highest fiber nuts, providing 12 percent of the daily value in a 1-ounce serving.

Beware of spontaneous combustion! No, seriously. Because of their high fat and low water content, pistachios are prone to self-heating and spontaneous combustion when stored with the oil-soaked fiber / fibrous materials. So, however you like to eat your pistachios, be careful how you store them.  Especially if you buy them in bulk, lest you end up in a spooky pantry retelling of a Steven King story where pistachios try to kill you.

Boom! go the pistachio nuts.

Photo credit(s):
Pistachio nuts from Iran, by Amin, CC:SA license

Pistachio tree, by Safa Daneshvar, CC:SA license

Pistachio ice cream (bastani) by Ewan Munro, CC:SA license