Almonds are forever

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on October 12, 2018 Published on October 12, 2018

Going nuts: Almonds have been a favourite food for thousands of years, and were being cultivated as long ago as 4000 BC   -  ISTOCK.COM

This favourite food has journeyed down the millenniums, from one civilisation and cuisine to another

There’s no point going nuts, when you can go almonds instead.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the great maxims of all times — in the league of “Fish and visitors stink in three days” and “This too shall pass”.

For I staunchly believe almonds can do no wrong. Over the years the little brown nut with the milky-white heart has become my solution for all kitchen kerfuffles; a quick fix for almost any wobbly cooking experiment.

The rocket-avocado salad’s looking limp and depressed? Don’t despair. Stir in a handful of toasted almonds instead.

The pasta with green spinach sauce is a tad stodgy? Never fear. Just top with sliced and roasted almonds for an instant makeover.

Your store-bought chocolate ice-cream or stewed fruit with sponge cake is too basic? Save the day with some buttery almond crumble.

The kids’ breakfast is a bit skimpy and short on nutrition? By now you know what I’m going to say — but I’ll say it anyway. Toss almonds into their cornflakes or muesli. Or even into their snack box. And then sit back and gloat over all the good stuff sneaking into their systems — loads of Vitamin E, antioxidants, proteins and the ability to battle baddies like cancer, blood pressure, osteoporosis and heart diseases.

Almonds are to food what transfiguration spells are to magic. They make the ordinary into the special, and the special into the fantastic. When looking through a restaurant menu, for example, I would never choose a simple baked salmon over all the other fancy foods on offer. But a baked salmon crusted with almonds is another matter altogether. As is a chicken peach almond sandwich. Or a Moroccan lamb stew simmered with almonds, raisin and honey.

In fact, I can never understand why anybody would buy a plain chocolate bar, when they could just as easily get themselves a fruit-and-nut. Or buy a croissant sprinkled with powdered sugar when a flaky pastry stuffed with delicate almond paste is arrayed on the neighbouring tray. Or go to all the trouble of making a redolent, ghee-laced sheera or seviya — and then skimp on the badam and kishmish. Or drive to the fabulous Udupi restaurants in Matunga, and return without the soft, addictive, plastic-wrapped packages of badam halwa.

After all, almonds are old and beloved acquaintance. They’ve been a favourite food for thousands of years, and were being cultivated as long ago as 4000 BC. Although 80 per cent of the world’s almonds now grow in California, this nutty story started in a very different part of the world.

Wild almond trees grew alongside the historic Silk Route that connected China with the Mediterranean, after meandering through India, Persia, Arabia and Turkey.

Like the traders of the ancient world, almonds were great travellers. They journeyed from one bustling caravanserai to another; from one wealthy civilisation to another. Little wonder, then, that they’ve popped up in Hebrew texts and in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and in ayurvedic formulae and Biblical stories. The Ancient Romans believed that almonds were a symbol of fertility, and showered them upon newlyweds. Similarly, in the US, wedding guests are often given bags of sugared almonds. In China they’re a symbol of female beauty. In India they’re considered brain food — the secret behind those SSC and CBSE board toppers, whose mugs and marks stare at us from billboards and newspaper advertisements.

This is probably why, when we were children, almonds were a regular treat. They were usually doled out by our grandparents — exactly seven almonds for each grandchild, usually during Ramzan or Eid or family festivities. During Diwali, business associates sent big boxes of nuts and raisins, which were carefully rationed to last as much of the year as possible. In my mind, almonds were firmly associated with ruffled dresses, firecrackers and overeating.

The moment of revelation came much later — when I was returning to Mumbai after two years in Los Angeles. I stopped over in London to spend a day with my Welsh friend Sian.

I’d just packed up an apartment and a life. I was jet-lagged and not in the mood for a culinary quest through the damp, windy streets of London. But Sian was so eager to introduce me to her fortuitous find that I acquiesced. We trudged through the chilly rain till we reached a trendy café. My heart plummeted when I realised that there was standing space only. It tumbled still further when Sian ordered two bowls of almond soup.

All this for soup? Huh?

Then the soup arrived — and a single spoonful later I was beaming. Even today, decades later, I remember that bowlful of warmth and comfort, the flavours, familiar and strange at the same time.



Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Every spoonful hinted at pink marzipan roses and silver-wrapped Diwali mithai; pale brown macaroons and chewy nougat. Each sip reminded me that you can know someone or something all your life, and still be surprised.

No longer. Today I know my almonds well. They go into pestos and Indian gravies; onto fish and chicken. Though, of course, the versatile continues to startle and delight. Which is why I’m planning to try my hand at almond toffee popcorn and fried brown rice with red peppers and almonds sometime soon.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw








Easy-peasy pesto


(Made with almonds instead of the usual pine nuts)

  • Ingredients
  • 120g almonds
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 4 large handfuls fresh basil leaves
  • 100g grated parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Method
  • 1. Roast the almonds in a dry pan, then pop them in a food processor until you have a coarse powder. Add garlic and basil and whizz a little longer. Add the parmesan, olive oil, salt and pepper and whizz again.
  • 2. Use with pasta, on sandwiches, as a dip.


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Published on October 12, 2018
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