Foraging – Monkey Puzzle Nuts
Well, I’ll be a monkey’s niece! Monkey Puzzle trees produce these amazing big edible nuts!
Okay. They’re actually seeds, but I like calling them nuts since we’re all familiar with pine nuts. And, yes, those are actually seeds as well.
Araucaria araucana (a.k.a. monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén) is an evergreen tree which can reach over 150 feet in height and can live to be a thousand years old. These trees take twenty years to reach sexual maturity and similar to other ancient trees like gingko biloba, and fellow Araucaria genus member the bunya, they are dioecious having distinct male and female trees with different cones. This means it takes a male and a female to produce their nut-like seeds. The pollen from the oblong-shaped male cones is blown by the wind to the female cones. This feature of the tree seems like a bit of a puzzle, though, since there’s no sign of male trees near most of the monkey trees I’ve foraged from in Vancouver. It turns out that very occasionally a monkey tree can be a hermaphrodite and produce cones from both sexes, but such a tree would have loads of fertilized seeds. Amazingly, the pollen can travel up to 10km, so it’s possible that we don’t have a city filled with monkey tree hermaphrodites especially since the cones I’ve seen only have a handful of fertilized (edible) seeds in them. It’s likely that the fertilization is thanks to a distant male tree and the wind, which is seriously impressive.
The tree is native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. Araucaria araucana is the hardiest species in the conifer genus Araucaria and has been successfully grown as far north as Haida Gwaii. The monkey puzzle tree was classified as endangered by the IUCN in 2013 and has been declared a national monument in Chile.
In its native Chile, the tree is called pehuén. There are no monkeys in the Andes; the name ‘Monkey Puzzle” was given by the English who thought a monkey would have a tough time figuring out how to climb it.
The tree is prized for its wood thanks to the amazingly straight and tall trunk. The nuts are commonly eaten in Chile, Argentina and Brazil as a source of starch. They can be eaten raw or cooked, pounded into flour for bread, or brewed into a mildly alcoholic ceremonial drink which the Pehuenche people (literally pine nut people) of the Andes call mudai.
I absolutely adore and recommend The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart. It’s how I found out that monkey puzzle nuts were edible.
To make mudai, the seeds are boiled and allowed to ferment naturally for a few days; to speed things up, they can be chewed and spit back into the mixture, which adds enzymes from saliva to break down the starches. Once the mixture has stopped bubbling, it is poured into special wooden bowls or jars for the festivities. ~The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart
The nuts are very starchy, so when cooked they have a delicate sweet flavour that is a cross between sweet corn and sweet chestnut with a hint of pine nut.
The coconut-sized cones will begin to fall apart and drop individual nuts on the ground when ripe, so no one (monkeys included) need to puzzle out a way to climb the tree and collect them. Gather the nuts on a regular basis (starting early in August) in paper bags and use or process within a week, or freeze them in their shells in freezer bags until you have time for a shelling session. Because of the high starch content, they will start to moulder after a couple of weeks which sucks when you finally go to the trouble of shelling them. I wish I had just stuck them all in the freezer right away, so don’t make the same mistake I made and leave them sitting around.
The nuts (seeds) are usually larger than an almond and weigh about 4.5 grams each in the shell. The Monkey Puzzle is closely related the Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) which also produces a big starchy nut, but the bunya nut is 15 grams each and its massive cones can weigh up to 10kg. Absolute monsters! Not a tree to picnic under. There is plenty of information about harvesting, storing and preparing bunya nuts on-line as it’s gained popularity as a food source in its native Australia. Bunya and monkey tree nuts are both nutritionally similar to chestnuts as they are starchy rather than oily. Bunya Pine nut recipes and storing techniques are interchangeable with Monkey Puzzle nuts as long as you remember that the bunya nuts are three times the size.
Monkey Puzzle nuts can be eaten raw, but they are much tastier when cooked. Dry cooking a starchy nut will harden them into something inedible and tooth-cracking, so don’t bother oven roasting. Drop the whole nuts in their shells into boiling water. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes and drain. Peeling the nuts is a lot easier with the shells softened and you can eat them at this point or freeze them for use later. Peeling them is the hardest part of prepping monkey tree nuts. Some people roast them over coals like chestnuts, but do a small batch to test out the texture first.
I made a delicious polenta-like treat using the recipe below and I’ve also made pesto with monkey tree nuts instead of pine nuts which was great. They added that little bit of creaminess but they don’t have as much flavour as a regular pine nut.
Of course, another cool thing you can do is stick them in a pot and sprout some baby monkey puzzle trees! According to a local fella with a tree, saplings go for quite a lot of money. The seeds must be very fresh and sell for about $2 each online for people looking to grow one for themselves.
Monkey Puzzle Tree Nut Halva Recipe (a.k.a. sweet polenta)
- 1 1/2 cups of peeled Monkey Puzzle seeds/nuts
- 1 1/2 cups of water
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup of sugar
- a pinch of saffron (optional)
I made this delicious snack by following a recipe for vegan almond halva, replacing the almonds with monkey puzzle nuts. The result only resembled halva in its flavour since the monkey puzzle nuts are so starchy. The texture was almost identical to polenta.
- Make a paste with the nuts and water in a blender or food processor. Add more water as needed (it’ll be cooked off anyway).
- Add to a large frying pan and cook over medium heat, stirring often until it thickens up. About 10 minutes.
- Add sugar and pinch of salt. Stir.
- Add a bit more water (1/4 cup). Stir and taste. I found 1/4 cup of turbinado sugar to be enough.
- Add oil. Stir and cook for 10 minutes until thick and lumping together.
- Take off the heat and stir in the cardamom and saffron.
- Spread onto a parchment paper lined tray to desired thickness (I did about half an inch) and leave to cool and set. Cut it into triangles or diamonds. They’ll keep in the fridge for a week and make an awesome snack.
Alternatively, you could just serve it warm in a bowl. That would be amazing with some cream or coconut milk if you want to keep it vegan. If you want to make a savoury polenta to serve with food, omit the sugar and spices and season to taste with salt and pepper, and use olive oil instead of coconut oil.