Full disclosure: I have always been partial to cashews. When I was a kid, cashews made an appearance in our house just once a year – at my parents’ annual holiday cocktail party. I looked forward to those cashews for weeks, and when the party started, I came with a plan. I’d casually weave my way through a maze of laughter and clinking glasses to the cashew dish, wait until I was confident that no eyes were upon me, and then stuff handful after handful of the precious nuts into my special holiday party blazer’s pockets.
Until I met Cyrilla Suwarsa of DUMBO-based Nuts + Nuts last summer, I had no idea where cashews came from, how they we grown, or how they made it to our shores. But after tasting her cashews, I wanted to find out – they were unlike any cashews I’d ever had. I didn’t realize what a difference freshness can make in a nut until I met Cyrilla.
Nuts + Nuts was born out of domestic necessity of a distinctly Indonesian sort. A family friend encouraged Cyrilla’s sister Cecielia, who lives in Indonesia, to buy 200 pounds of nuts from local cashew farmers. When they arrived at the family’s doorstep, their mom balked. “This is way too much! I’m not going to cook with cashews every day for the next year!”
Cyrilla and Cecielia’s mission to clear those piles nuts out of their mom’s kitchen in Jakarta became Nuts + Nuts: Cecielia buys freshly-harvested nuts from small, family-run cashew farms near their home in central Java, roasts and seasons them in small batches using all-natural, hand-cut ingredients, and sends them by ship to Cyrilla in New York.
We met with Cyrilla at her new office/shop in DUMBO to learn how her global yet local business is bringing some of the freshest, tastiest, most sustainably-produced cashews around to New York City.
Nona: So Cyrilla, tell us about how Nuts + Nuts came to be.
Well, I grew up in Indonesia – in Jakarta, to be specific. I came to the United States to go to RISD – the Rhode Island School of Design. After school, I came to New York to work as a designer. In 2003, I was diagnosed with Lupus, and since I didn’t have any family here – all my family is still in Indonesia – I had to go home to recuperate.
While I was home, a friend of ours named Nuning was working directly with the cashew farming community in Wonogiri, a region in central Java that’s not far from Jakarta. Nuning worked in the cosmetic industry, and she was researching the fruit of the cashew tree. She was interested in using the cashew fruit as a moisturizer.
She was buying cashew fruit from a few farming families, but she had no use for the nuts. The farmers were looking for buyers for the nuts, too. They had really high-quality cashews, but not enough buyers.
My family has a local coconut oil business so we had a lot of experience with agriculture and working with farmers, so Nuning called my sister Cecielia to ask if we might be able to help.
Cecielia didn’t really know what to do with cashews but she wanted to help, so she ordered two hundred pounds. When they arrived at the house she was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a lot of cashews! Where am I going to keep these? What do we do!?”
My mom was like, “This is way too much! I can’t cook with cashews every day for the next year!”
Luckily, it was near the Christmas holiday, so she said, “Let’s give them out to our friends and family as gifts. Maybe someone will be willing to buy!”
Then we had to find some way to package them since we were going to give them as gifts. I went to a local artisan – a box maker. He made nice traditional Indonesian boxes out of woven pandanus leaves. So we roasted them in the oven, put them in bags, put the bags in boxes, wrapped them with a ribbon and gave them away. People loved them! We still work with the same box maker.
One of my sister’s friends owned a business and she asked about buying more to store and give as gifts to clients visiting from overseas. She thought they’d make really nice, local gifts. She took some, but noticed that the nuts lost their freshness pretty quickly, so she suggested that we find a way to preserve them without using anything artificial.
So that was how we learned that cashews only stay fresh for two or three weeks unless they’re packaged very carefully. We came up with little vacuum-sealed packages that keep the nuts perfectly fresh without having to use any preservatives at all – they keep out all light and oxygen, so they nuts stay fresh for close to a year. Freshness is one of the things that makes our cashews so special.
I used to take the freshness factor for granted – I grew up eating really fresh cashews. When I came back to New York I was working freelance as a designer. I brought some of our cashews to my boss, and he tried them and said, “Wow! This is a cashew? I’ve never tasted a cashew like this before!” They really taste different when they’re fresh.
So it all started with gifts we made from what we thought was a one-time cashew order. Now it’s become Nuts + Nuts.
How do you get your cashews?
We still get cashews from the farmers Nuning was working with back in 2003. Central Java is a very hilly region, and they had serious erosion problems back in the 1960s and 70s, so the government introduced cashew farming as a way for the local people to make a living and control erosion at the same time. Because of that it’s become the main occupation in that region. Cashew has always grown naturally and abundantly in that area and that climate.
Right now we get them from two small-scale family farmers: Mr. Lilik and Mr. Suraji. The farms in that part of central Java are small, one-family farms. They usually just have a back yard behind their house where they grow cashew trees. At first we just worked with Mr. Lilik, but as we grew, he wasn’t able to provide as many cashews as we needed, so we started working with Mr. Suraji’s family as well.
We are looking to work with families in eastern Java as well. Cashews can only be grown in a really dry area. Last year in central Java it rained so much and it was cooler than usual, so there was almost no harvest at all. Not only cashews, but the red chilis that we use in our Spicy flavor were very hard to find as well. So we need to work with families growing cashews in eastern Java as well to ensure that if there is another bad growing season in central Java, we’ll still be able to get cashews.
The cashews grow on trees. The nut actually hangs off the bottom of the cashew fruit. Each fruit produces just one nut. In Indonesia they make chips out of the fruit. In Vietnam, they make juice with it. But the fruit is very, very perishable, so you will never see it being imported here to the U.S. Even though it’s very good for you it just doesn’t last long enough to make it here.
Cashews cost more than other nuts because trees don’t produce many nuts, and the process for preparing them is very labor intensive. After harvesting the nuts, they are dried in the sun to help preserve them and to make it easier to remove the shell.
The outer shell is very thick and it contains a substance that irritates the skin, so they have to be opened very carefully, one by one. If the shell is opened the wrong way, the nut will break and then it will not be worth as much money to the farmer. The women in the farming families usually do the shelling – they don’t get much in a day because they have to be opened so carefully, one at a time.
India is one of the biggest producers of cashews. They have a big processing plant – maybe the biggest in the world – where they use machines to shell the nuts. But in Indonesia it’s all done by hand.
We like working directly with the farmers because we know how the nuts are produced, and we know we are getting the freshest, highest-quality cashews we can while ensuring fair earnings for the farmers.
So once you have the nuts, how do you prepare them?
Once we get the raw cashews from the farmers, my sister roasts them and seasons them. At first, we just roasted the nuts in the oven in our kitchen at home. Once we started to grow, we had to move to a different space because of Department of Health regulations in Indonesia. So we found a new kitchen space and my brother-in-law designed a machine to slowly roast the nuts.
We roast them in small batches of about 22 pounds. It takes a few hours to roast each batch. After roasting them, we season them.
We started with two of my grandmother’s seasoning recipes – our Sweet & Salty and our Lightly Salted flavors were hers. Since then we’ve added two more flavors – Spicy with Lime Leaves and Honey Sesame. Cashews are a common part of the cuisine in Indonesia. Everyone’s grandmother has a recipe for roasting cashews.
We do things very traditionally. Garlic is another very common ingredient in Indonesian food. We use garlic in most of our flavors. We use real garlic – we chop the cloves one by one, with a knife – we don’t even use a food processor. We use lime leaves from our garden behind our house. If we don’t have enough, we just go to the local market to buy more from local farmers.
We also use red chili – another very common ingredient in Indonesian cooking. It’s not too spicy that it burns the tongue – the heat is just right. We get it from local farmers too. We just use all natural, local, hand-cut ingredients and we simmer them in coconut oil, then season and roast the cashews. Coconut oil is actually very good for you. We don’t use any preservatives or artificial flavors in our recipes.
There’s no big scientific process for inventing recipes. We just do everything traditionally – nothing complicated! We’re not shaking some pre-made seasoning powder on our cashews – a lot of work goes into each small batch.
Our cashews can never be locally sourced here in the Northeast of the U.S. – cashews only grow in the tropics – but I call them sustainable. We get our cashews directly from small family farmers that we know personally. My sister roasts them in small batches and seasons them using all natural ingredients local to our home in Jakarta, and she packages them herself and sends them directly to me. This way we can ensure the highest quality and freshness and that the farmers are making fair wages.
Most cashews are mass-produced. You can’t know where the nuts are from, who grew them, who roasted them, how they’re seasoned, or how fresh they are. Big distributors bring nuts from all over the world to mass producers who process and package them in big factories and send them out through a huge distribution chain.
So how many people are involved with Nuts + Nuts now?
When I left Indonesia in 2007 to come back to New York, we had two people helping out. Now we have about five. My mom, too! She’s the quality controller. She tastes every batch to make sure the seasoning is just right!
All my family is still in Jakarta. I’m the only one here, on the other side of the world, with my cashews!
How do the nuts get from the kitchen in Indonesia to shop shelves in New York City?
When we first started we had no idea how to get them from Indonesia to here.
After a lot of research, trial and error, we’ve been working with a shipper named Sayeed. When we have a batch ready to ship, we put it on a wooden pallet and wrap it. The shipping company comes and picks it up, puts it in a container with other products, brings it to the port and makes sure it gets on a big ship. When it arrives here, they pick it up, clear it through customs, and deliver it to our door.
Kind of amazing, huh?
It really is!
Do you think Nuts + Nuts will ever branch out from cashews?
I don’t think so. I do have a new cashew product though – my spicy cashew dip. I started making it and serving samples for people at the New Amsterdam Market. I was using it as an example of the sort of thing you can make with cashews. People really liked it and kept asking if I had any for sale. I kept saying, “No, but it’s really easy to make it at home!” But they didn’t want to make it at home – they wanted to buy it, so I realized I should start offering it.
I make it at the Brooklyn Lyceum Café’s kitchen every two weeks. I don’t use any preservatives, so it only stays fresh for a couple of weeks – I have to keep going back and making more.
It’s very versatile – it’s great as a dip or as a marinade or in a salad dressing. You can even just put it on top of rice!
Marlow & Daughters and Greene Grape are carrying it now.
Do you like to cook?
I love to cook.
Do you cook lots of Indonesian food?
Ha – not at all! It’s too difficult! It takes too long – I don’t have time to simmer a curry for hours!
Check out Nuts + Nuts here to try some of their super-tasty treats!