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Nuts Over Pili Nuts

There are three ways to enjoy Bicol — see Mayon Volcano, gorge on pili nuts or savor the local cuisine. If you’re lucky, you get to enjoy all.

Pili nuts coated with caramelized sugar, Legazpi City, Albay
Pili nuts coated with caramelized sugar

My family spent three days and three nights in Albay during the Holy Week, the food was mostly hit and miss but the pili nut experience was unforgettable. A full 36 hours before our flight back to Manila, I was already hoarding on every pili nut delicacy that caught my fancy — pili nut cakes, pili nut pastillas, mazapan de pili… Not that they’re not available back home but there’s something special about munching pili nut cakes while gazing at the perfect cone of Mount Mayon. It’s like living all of the Bicol experience — its history, its folk stories, its land and its waters — at that moment.

But before my fanciful thoughts take over, and before I bore you to tears with stories of Daragang Magayon that I read in the fourth grade, I should tell you, in perfect gourmand fashion, why pili nut is special — so special, in fact, that if I were told that I would be allowed access to only one variety of nut in the whole world, I’d choose the pili nut. I love its tender-crisp texture, the smooth exterior, the subtle sweet flavor. It has the highest oil content among all edible nuts and that’s what probably accounts for the soft yet crunchy feel. As an ingredient, the pili nut is highly versatile. It goes well in cakes, ice cream, pies, candies and puddings.

According to an article published in 1993 in the Purdue University website, Canarium ovatum, the plant that bears the pili fruit, is native to the Philippines and the Philippines is the only exporter of pili nuts. Pili nut is not yet widely known outside Southeast Asia but even as early as 1993 there were already assessments that pili nut production could be turned into a major industry.

Mazapan de Pili
Mazapan de Pili

There are obstacles, however. Propagation is not easy and cracking the hard shells add to the problems. A couple of years ago, the Department of Science and Technology published an article in its website discussing the development of the mechanical pili nutcracker by Engrs. Arnulfo P. Malinis, Estrella A. Calpe, and Alan P. Rabe of the Bicol University College of Agriculture and Forestry (BUCAF) that could purportedly crack 112.5 kilograms of pili nuts per hour at an efficiency rate of 91.11 per cent.

In “Bicolanos now see pili nut a potential major industry” by Danny O. Calleja published last week in The Business Mirror, it seems that the Bicolanos are finally taking the big leap. The Department of Agriculture (DA), local government units (LGUs) and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) are banding together to boost the development of the pili nut industry. The Philippines may finally hold a monopoly on a rare product the demand for which may escalate to very profitable heights.

Jars of pili nut candies

And it is not as if the nut is the only useful part of the plant. According to Pilinut.Com, the pulp “yields a high value oil used in topical skin products and is prized for its lanoline content.” The shell is “used as growing medium for orchids and anthuriums” as well as an “alternative cooking fuel with a high efficiency heating capacity. The sap of the trunk is a valued ingredient for perfume-making and the wood itself, after the fruit-bearing life of the tree, is good for making furniture.

So, it looks like the Bicolanos have a gold mine in their hands. Whether highly profitable pili nut production and processing can be transformed from dream to reality remains to be seen.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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