Steamy flavoured “Kashmiri Pulav”, blissful “Dragon chicken” (Indian style sweet stir fry shredded chicken) and to top it up was the “Gajar ka Halwa” (typical carrot sweet dish). All served at the beautiful exotic Taj.The beautiful aroma and the delightful colours would lift the spirits of any person. My son was on all his enthusiasm and vigour to get digging into his plate and there I was with my eyes stuck on the “Cashews”…
I seem to have been transported to the recent visit of the cashew factory at Kollam, Kerala. I was all excited to see and know more as to how the cashews are sent to its customers. It was around 1.30 pm that we reached on to a deserted road leading to these huge gates of a factory. As the gates opened we were into a place of cold silence. We thought that it was a holiday that day but then a view at the polythene packets resting right next to the wall and the slippers which seemed to be guarding them was the testimony that people are there. But where were these people??
Our driver went inside as we were left wondering what is next!! That is when I could see our driver calling us to come over to a place that looked like an office. We met Manoj, the supervisor of the place. He was neatly dressed and seated in his office with piles of notes and paper. I could not see any computers, in this machine era. It seemed as though they trusted the old system more than the systems. He said, he will guide us on this “Cashew factory” tour..
Just adjoining the office place onto the left hand side was a godown filled with sacks of Cashew nut. Beautiful Green and brown coloured nuts oozing out from the sacks. The first thought was wow.. “All this from Kerala” and he was prompt in saying.. “No Sir, this comes from Ivory Coast. Indian supply is only for 3 months and not more than that. So we import Cashew nuts”. And here I was in thought that “India was self sufficient in this”. A quick google search made me realise that Maharastra, Tamil Nadu & Odisha lead in Cashew production in India. Kerala is at a meagre fourth. And, India contributes to around 28% of the world’s cashew supply.
This particular factory seems to have found it cheaper to import it from Africa rather than from Indian states.
Well from there these cashew went into a furnace where they would be heated up to help the nut cases loosen up and the main fruit to be easy to come out. These furnaces were manually managed. The oil that comes out of these nuts was sticking onto the walls of the furnace and giving it a sticky pitch black look. That place even though was not functional one could feel the heat to be atleast 20 degrees more than the surrounding. To me it looked
The manual rotator
Drum to heat cashew
like a murder site in the dark alleys.
From here on the charred cashews are taken up for manual deshelling. It was really a dingy site with atleast 40 – 50 women hunched on one side of the room manually breaking open
Deshelling of Cashews..
the nuts and on the other side were the men who were using the manual machine to open the shells. Both seemed painstaking and laborious. There is no automated way of deshelling, one had to go the manual way. What stayed very sad with me was the working condition. The air seemed still and suffocating under the asbestos sheets. The human voice was also lost out in the sound of cracking shells.
The women folk seemed to be from Kerala locals while the men were up up north and east. Many of them had there for the last 4-5 years and now fluent in Malayalam. These young boys were happy to send back money home and did not mind the environment as long as the money came in. They helped us also put our hands to work. While doing so, they did tell us to be careful of the oil coming out of the cashew as that could destroy the nails if not cared for.
Removing the cashew oil
One of them was oiling his hand well to ensure that the Cashew oil did not stick to his skin. These men were doing all this work without any gloves.
Cashew shells & Cashew
Once the deshelling is over, the brownish looking cashews move to be heated up again. And can you believe the shelled cases are used to heat up the same furnaces that are used to loosen them up. No external resources used to burn the furnace, all self sustaining.
As one moves to the heating area, you are welcomed into a room which is constantly maintained at 100 degrees. And the furnace was even more. Stacks of Cashew trays are pushed into the furnace by this gentleman who is the only man managing it day in and out. Lifting and tying his lungi, he was back to his work with a smile. His shirt was his second skin. His beautiful smile did not even tell the heat and strain he was bearing on. I tried to push the cart into the furnace, I had a second bath and realised it was not an easy job at all, like the way he made it look like.
Once these cashews are cooled down, they move to the cleaning area. It is here that one see more light and air flowing. The supervisor of the room had his chair up ahead in the room, right between the two rows. He would walk up and down just to keep an eye on the women working. He was the only male member in the room filled with women. These women would segregate the cashews based
on them being full or split or broken or smaller broken pieces. When we started interacting, there was giggle on the floor as if that was their fun time. But, none stirred from their places. Some sat on armed plastic chairs, while some on plastic stools hunched up. Towards the fag end of the room there were women seated on the floor too. They seemed more comfortable that way. The cashews were neatly stacked into different baskets and moved to the next room for final inspection and cleaning.
The first cleaning room
Women at work
Scraping the skin
In the next room which was equally well lit, women were busy cleaning the cashews, some where scrapping the skin of the cashews to look ivory white. The deftness with which they worked on that said all about their skill. We tried our hand on one and by the time we ran the small knife for the second time, the cashew broke into two. There was a giggle and laughter looking at our clumsiness. These women were so friendly that they never would give a feel that they are unhappy. Some of them came from long distances every morning and return back in the evening.
Segregating based on quality
One of the old worker
As we stepped out of the room, our eyes felt on the shed next door and we realised that there was another similar set up for cleaning and a bunch of women ran to that side with crates full of hot cashews to be cleaned. In between the two sheds was the rest room, the stink could make one run away.
From here the cashews moved to the final packing area far away from this factory. There they put the cashews through the final inspection and hopped into big polythene bags. They are vacuum sealed with nitrogen air to protect the precious product before being sold. These were sold in the local and international markets at high prices. We also managed to pick up a 1 kg bag of cashew.
As we moved away from the factory, what remained with me was this smoked bellowing factory and the gleeful happy faces inspite of all the odds that they faced. All this to ensure that the end customer happens to get a shining white full Cashew to enjoy his or her “Kashmiri Pulav” or “Gajar ka Halwa”.