Chestnut, also known as Castanea and at times as chinkapin or chinquapin, is an edible nut that belongs to the beech tree of the Fagaceae family, a deciduous species that is native to the various temperate regions situated in the Northern Hemisphere. Though it is not advisable to consume the raw nuts, they are used in various culinary preparations that include savory as well as sweet dishes such as rice dishes, soups, braised dishes, cheesecake, baked foods and even salads. There are many popular recipes of this edible nut, which include Braised Chestnuts, Chestnut Amaretto Soup, Chestnut Ravioli, Chestnut Rice, etc., to name a few. This nut is a very rich source of starch; hence, it is used instead of potatoes in some dishes.
Though, there are many other types of chestnut trees such as the American chestnut, Water chestnut, or horse chestnut, they are very different from the edible chestnut. There are different species of this nut that grow in various parts of the world such as Asia, Europe and America; they are more common in Chinese, Japanese and southern European cuisines.
There are many references to the origin of chestnut, which dates back to the prehistoric times; wherein the early man is believed to have consumed the nut. Thereafter, it is believed to have been introduced to Europe through Greece. Later on it also got introduced into America. The botanical name Castanea is believed to have been derived from Latin or Ancient Greek word for “sweet chestnut”. Another reference is to Kastania, a town in Thessaly, Greece, which could have been the other way round i.e., the town having derived its name from the deciduous trees that grow abundantly in the Mediterranean region.
There is another reference to Castanea, in the King James Version of the Bible. This nut has been referred by various names since the early times – Fagus castanea, as mentioned in the Species Plantarum’s first edition in the year 1753; as Sardian nut, Husked nut, Jupiter’s nut and as Spanish chestnut in the US. Today, the Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Spanish chestnuts are popular all across the world and are exported all over.
Various Species of Castanea
There are three main types of chestnut species -
- European species– Also known as sweet chestnut or as Spanish chestnut in US, this is the only species this tree that grows in Europe and is also found the Himalayan ranges of Asia.
- Asain species – The chestnut of this continent is known by various names such as Japanese chestnut, Chinese chestnut, Chinese chinkapin or Henry’s chestnut and Seguin’s chestnut.
- American species – It is known by different names in different parts of America, such as American chestnut, Allegheny chinkapin or dwarf chestnut in eastern American states.
Chestnut has many culinary uses, which include –
- Ground chestnut is used for making bread; hence, it is also known as “bread tree” in Europe, Japan and China.
- These starchy nuts are usually used as a substitute for pasta and potatoes.
- Boiled and mashed chestnuts or braised whole nuts pair well with carrots, sweet potatoes, Brussels, mushrooms, cabbage and sprouts.
- The nuts are also used in various stuffings and in desserts.
- Chestnut should not be eaten raw, because of their high content of tannin. However, they can be roasted or boiled. They need to be cooked thoroughly to avoid any kind of stomach upset.
- Dry nuts need to be soaked in water for at least an hour before they are cooked; but fresh nuts need to be boiled in order to remove the shell, which peels off only when the nuts are in hot water.
If the nuts are roasted, then the shell needs to be cut in places, else they can explode when roasted.
Popular Chestnut Recipes
Some popular chestnut recipes include –
- Wolfgang Puck’s Braised Chestnuts – Chestnuts are cooked in sautéed onions that are glazed with port wine and flavored with thyme, chicken stock, salt and pepper. When the nuts turn tender and all the liquid from the pan is absorbed by the nuts, they can either be pureed or served as is.
- Chestnut Amaretto Soup – Roasted chestnuts are added to sautéed carrots, parsley, scallions, parsnips, and garlic, along with chicken broth and bouquet garni. The contents are simmered till the nuts are tender. When done, the bouquet garni is removed and the contents are pureed to a fine consistency. The puree is poured into the saucepan, to which nutmeg, amaretto, cream, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper are added and stirred in well. The soup is simmered awhile and served hot, garnished with a little cream.
Chestnut is a high source of carbohydrates (about 44g) and a good amount of protein (1.6g). It also contains about 1.3g of fat, 11g of sugars, 40mg of vitamin C, 484mg of potassium and 0.94mg of iron.
Certain points to consider while buying chestnuts are –
- Ensure that the nuts are shiny, smooth and without blemishes.
- Cracked and shriveled nuts should be avoided (when the shells are shaken, shriveled nuts rattle in them, which is a sign that they have shriveled and dried).
- The nuts should be heavier that their size.
- Chestnuts tend to dry fast; hence, they need to be stored in a cool, well ventilated but draft free and dry place.
- Shelled nuts can be refrigerated for about 1 month in the crisper, kept in an airtight container and fresh nuts that not shelled, can be frozen for almost 4 months.
- Cooked nuts (chopped, pureed or whole) can be frozen for up to 9 months in an airtight container. They can also be preserved in sugar or syrup.
- Chestnut flour can be stored in airtight containers for almost a month.
- Chestnuts are full of starch because of which they are given to the poor on Saint Martin Feast day as a sign of sustenance. These nuts are also consumed in Tuscany as a tradition on Saint Simon’s Day.
- As per legend, the Greek army depended on these starchy nuts to sustain themselves between the periods 401 – 399 BC, when they retreated from Asia Minor.
- The timber of this tree is used for making furniture and the tree starts to produce fruit only when it is about 40 years old. These trees are known to live up to 500 years.
- Chestnut meal is used for starching fabric and also for whitening linen.