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Ingredient: Almonds (Prunus amygdalus)
Descended from: The almond is believed to have originated in the Middle East, specifically in the region that includes present-day Iran, Turkey, and Syria. From there, it spread to other parts of the world, including the Mediterranean region, North Africa, and eventually the United States. Almonds have been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years, with evidence of their use dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. Today, the United States is one of the largest producers of almonds in the world.
Domesticated almonds appear in the Early Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC), such as the archaeological sites of Numeira (Jordan), or possibly earlier. Another well-known archaeological example of the almond is the fruit found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt (c. 1325 BC), probably imported from the Levant. An article on almond tree cultivation in Spain is brought down in Ibn al-‘Awwam’s 12th-century agricultural work, Book on Agriculture.
Domestication date: circa 10,000 BC
- “Almond, kernel of the fruit of the Prunus dulcis. The fruit resembles a meagre peach, but is inedible. The kernel is used, sliced or ground, in cooking. Some trees produce bitter almonds; these have to be roasted before eating to eliminate their poisonous prussic acid. Almonds were being collected from the wild by the inhabitants of Franchthi Cave by 10,000 BC, and in Turkey, Syria and Palestine by that time or soon afterwards. Cultivation was probably under way by the third millenium BC: earliest evidence comes from Jordan. The almond was among the earliest of the domesticated fruit trees of the eastern Mediterranean, since, unlike some of the others, it can be propagated from seed…At Greek banquets they they were frequent constitutent of dessert…in Roman cuisine they sometimes served as a flavouring…Bitter almonds were placed in sacci, bouquets, and to impart their flavour and medicinal properties to wine as it was served. These properties were widely reputed to include the prefention of drunkenness…Sweet almonds produce a mild-flavoued oil…Both kinds of almonds, and their oils, were important medicinally.” —Food in the Ancient World From A-Z, Andrew Dalby [Routledge:London] 2003 (p. 6)
Properties: Bitter almonds are a variety of almond that contain a substance called amygdalin, which can be converted into cyanide when the almonds are crushed or chewed. Cyanide is a highly toxic compound that can be fatal in large doses.
Consuming bitter almonds or products made from them, such as almond oil or almond extract, in large quantities can be dangerous and even deadly. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning can include headache, dizziness, confusion, weakness, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, and even seizures or loss of consciousness.
For this reason, bitter almonds are not typically sold for human consumption in most countries, including the United States. Instead, they are used primarily in the production of almond oil or almond extract, which undergo processing to remove the toxic compounds.
Sweet almonds, on the other hand, are the variety of almonds that are typically consumed by humans and are considered safe to eat in moderate amounts. Sweet almonds do not contain amygdalin and therefore do not produce cyanide.
Health benefits: Almonds are a nutrient-dense food that can offer a number of health benefits when consumed as part of a balanced diet. Here are some potential health benefits of almonds –
- Heart health: Almonds are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, and antioxidants, which may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and improve overall heart health.
- Weight management: Almonds are high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats, which can help keep you feeling full and satisfied and reduce overall calorie intake. Some studies have suggested that consuming almonds as a snack may help promote weight loss and improve body composition.
- Blood sugar control: Almonds are low in carbohydrates and high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats, which can help slow the absorption of glucose and improve blood sugar control. Some research has shown that consuming almonds regularly may help lower fasting blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Bone health: Almonds are a good source of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, which are important minerals for bone health. Some studies have suggested that consuming almonds regularly may help improve bone mineral density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
- Skin health: Almonds are rich in vitamin E and other antioxidants, which can help protect the skin from damage caused by free radicals and promote skin health.
Dishes of Note: Almonds are a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes, from savory to sweet. Here are some famous almond dishes from around the world –
- Baklava: A popular dessert in many Middle Eastern countries, baklava is a sweet pastry made with layers of phyllo dough and a filling of ground almonds, sugar, and spices, topped with syrup or honey.
- Marzipan: A sweet, almond-based paste that is commonly used in cakes, candies, and other desserts. It is made from ground almonds and sugar, and often flavored with almond extract or other flavorings.
- Almond milk: A non-dairy milk alternative made from ground almonds and water. It can be used in a variety of dishes and beverages, including smoothies, cereal, and coffee.
- Chicken almondine: A classic French dish that features chicken breasts coated in a mixture of ground almonds and breadcrumbs, then pan-fried until golden brown and served with a creamy sauce.
- Almond-crusted fish: A dish where fish fillets are coated in a mixture of ground almonds and breadcrumbs, then baked or pan-fried until crispy and golden brown.
- Almond butter: A spread made from ground almonds that can be used as a substitute for peanut butter or as an ingredient in baking recipes.
History: Almonds have a rich and fascinating history that dates back thousands of years. The almond tree is believed to have originated in the Middle East, specifically in the region that includes present-day Iran, Turkey, and Syria. From there, it spread to other parts of the world, including the Mediterranean region, North Africa, and eventually the United States.
Almonds have been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years, with evidence of their use dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. The ancient Egyptians used almonds in their funerary rites, and the Greeks referred to almonds as the “king of nuts” and believed they had special powers to ward off evil spirits.
During the Middle Ages, almonds were highly valued for their nutritional and medicinal properties. They were used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs and sore throats to skin conditions and digestive problems. Almond milk was also a popular drink during this time, as it was a non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, almonds became an important crop in California, which is now one of the largest producers of almonds in the world. Today, almonds are a popular ingredient in many cuisines and can be found in a variety of dishes, from sweet to savory.
In addition to their culinary uses, almonds are also valued for their health benefits. They are a nutrient-dense food that is rich in protein, healthy fats, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Consuming almonds as part of a balanced diet may help improve heart health, promote weight management, and support healthy blood sugar levels.
In conclusion, almonds have a long and storied history that spans many cultures and time periods. From ancient civilizations to modern times, almonds have been cherished for their nutritional, medicinal, and culinary properties, making them a beloved and versatile ingredient in many parts of the world.
IMAGE CREDIT: Gobierno de Castilla-La Mancha