What are Candlenuts In Southeast Asian Cooking?

Posted on 04 Nov 2015 18:26

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Candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana) are a relative of Macadamia nuts and resemble them in appearance and in texture. They have a hard furrowed shell and the the nuts are yellow, waxy, and brittle, much like their Macadamia cousins. They are so named because they used to be used to make candles. The name is sometimes rendered as two separate words, candle nuts.

In Southeast Asian cooking they are used as a thickener and a texture enhancer in curry pastes and other dishes. They are never eaten raw, however, because of their slight toxicity and laxative effect, as evidenced by their bitterness, which is neutralized by cooking.

They are pounded or ground into a paste before being added to curries, stews, or gravies to act as a thickener and binder, and to give a creamy texture. They have a taste similar to Macadamias, except for a slight bitterness which is helped by cooking, and the addition of a little sugar, if needed.

Candlenuts go rancid very quickly and must be used as soon as possible, and kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

Candlenuts are called buah keras in Malay, and kemiri in Indonesian.

This tropical Southeast Asian tree is in the Euphorbiaceae or "spurge" family, and is native to Malaysia, Polynesia, Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, and the South Sea Islands. The tree was also brought long ago to Hawaii by Polynesians, and it today Hawaii's official tree.

It is now found in a wide distribution throughout the tropics and is found as far south as Australia and New Zealand.

closeup view of shelled candlenuts for cooking

Close up view of candlenuts ready for use. © Shariff Che'Lah via FotoliaImage Credit

It grows up to 65 feet tall (20 m). Sometimes even taller trees are seen, as high as 90 feet. The tree's flowers are small and white and grow in clusters, and the fruits are from 1 to 3 inches in diameter, with a whitish skin when young that turns from green to black when mature. There are two or three Macadamia-like kernels within each fruit.

The tree is cultivated in China, where it is not associated with food, but the nut oil is used in various applications, such as for a drying oil called tung oil used in paints, varnishes, lacquer, and soft soap, although it is not the best source for this oil. You will also see the oil sold for cosmetic or skin care purposes, such as as an oil for showering or in body lotions or cremes, or as an aromatherapy agent. In Hawaii, where it is called Kukui nut it has long been used for skin care and other therapeutic purposes. The evidence for its use in this regard is lacking, except for the fact it has been used for centuries. There is no reason to believe the oil have skin-protecting qualities that are any different than other nut oils, such as almond oil. It is also believed to be a very good hair treatment.

candlenut tree cutting with leaves, flowers, and fruit

A cutting from a candlenut tree in Maui, Wahinepee, Hawaii, showing leaves,
flowers, and fruit.
Image by Forest and Kim Starr, via http://www.starrenvironmental.com/resources/ Star EnvironmentalImage Credit

How are Candlenuts Used In Food?

Candlenuts are usually roasted in the shell before the kernels are removed. They are difficult to get out of the shell, so they will tend to be available at Asian markets or can be purchased online as a mixture of whole and broken kernels. They are used most extensively in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Hawaii. As above, they are principally used ground as a thickener but are also sometimes used chopped and sauteed.

In Indonesia, kemiri is considered an indespencable spice, where a relish made with candlenuts and chiles is called sambal bajak.

In Hawaii, roasted and pounded candlenuts are mixed with salt and used as a relish called inamona. Chile peppers are sometimes added.

A popular Malaysian dish which features candlenut is an Indian-influenced curry known as kapitan.

What Can You Substitute for Candlenuts

Other oil-rich nuts can be substituted for candlenuts. The obvious substitute would be macadamia nuts. Almonds or cashews can also be used in their place.

How Were the Nuts Used as Candles?

Candlenuts have such a high oil content that they simply burn like a candle on their own. In Malasia, Indonesia, and in Hawaii, many nuts would be strung on the ribs from palm leaves. The top nut could be lit and it would burn for at least two or three minutes, while dripping oil onto the nut below it, causing it to light, and repeated the process, so that the whole string of nuts slowly burned like a candle.

Hawaiians also used them for making torches. They filled the end of a bamboo pole with candlenut kernels, which were set alight.

Southeast Asian spicy fried noodle dish with candlenuts, bami goreng, mie goreng, bakimi

Bami goreng, Mie Goreng (Mee, Mi) or Bakimi - "Fried Noodles" popular in Malaysia and Singapore,
in restaurants and as street-food. It uses candlenuts as part of the rempah or spice paste.
© kwasny221 via FotoliaImage Credit

Other Uses

  • resin from the tree used to treat Hawaiian fishing nets
  • oil from green candlenuts used to seal wounds
  • the shells were used for traditional Hawaiian jewelry, such as bracelets. A candlenut lei is considered a very special gift.
  • soot from burning candlenuts was used as a tattoo ink
  • oil used as a laxative

Other Names

  • lumbang
  • Indian walnut
  • kukui
  • candleberry (not exclusive)
  • varnish tree

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