Every summer I have special visitors in my garden—Mr. and Mrs. Almond Joy. They live under the almond tree and gleefully nibble on the fresh crop of green, fuzzy almond fruits. Sitting in my breakfast nook, with a hot cup of chai, I delight in seeing these playful creatures merrily munch on the fruits.

7a3c1419df031c0a2a30dbf0d93b544a-2Four years ago, when I spotted this pair of squirrels nibbling on the nuts, my instant reaction was to rush out and scare the thieves away. My husband saw me running after them and laughed, “They do have an equal right to the fruit.”

I was flustered and angry that my efforts of planting and nurturing the tree would be wasted. He continued philosophically, “Mother Nature provides for all to enjoy … maybe we can enjoy seeing Mr. and Mrs. Almond Joy relishing the fruit. So long as someone eats the fruit and it does not go to waste.”
No doubt, my enthusiasm to eat almonds from my tree could hardly compete with the enthusiasm of these squirrels. Reluctantly, I concurred with my husband’s philosophy. Now I look forward to the return of the squirrels under the almond tree in the summer.

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Almonds grow on beautiful trees and taste great. They are California’s largest food export. In fact, California growers produce about $1 billion worth of almonds each year. They sell these almonds around the United States and in more than 90 other countries.

Almonds have a rich history in many different cultures. In classical times Romans presented gifts of sugared almonds to important dignitaries as well as personal friends. At weddings they also tossed almonds at the bride and groom as a symbol of fertility. An early European tradition of wrapping sugar-coated almonds in sheer netting and presenting them to guests symbolized fertility, happiness, romance, good health, and fortune.

The Swedes use almonds as a symbol of good fortune at Christmas time, serving rice pudding with an almond hidden in one of the servings. The one who finds it is promised an especially good year.

In India, Persian and Afghan traders first introduced almonds many centuries ago. Almonds in India were believed to be a sacred “brain” food that would increase thinking ability. Persian traders also brought almonds to China, in the 14th century. There, almonds were used as medicine to help cure coughs and upset stomach. Almonds in Japan—introduced there by Portuguese traders—were also first used as a medicine for cough.

But today, young and old eat almonds in a variety of foods and medicine all over the world. A really nutty idea for preventing heart disease: Eat more almonds. While it’s true that almonds are high in fat, it’s important to remember that they contain monounsaturated fats, the kind that protects the heart. Because almonds are a plant food, they contain no cholesterol.

Almonds are also high in protein. One ounce contains 12 percent of our daily protein needs. Almonds contain generous amounts of vitamin E, considered a powerful antioxidant with cancer-fighting qualities. They’re also a rich source of magnesium, better than even spinach. Almonds are abundant in phosphorus, which is good for bones and teeth. They also contain potassium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, and trace amounts of the B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.

Almonds also contain more calcium than any other nut. One ounce of raw blanched almonds (approximately 20 to 25) contains 66 mg of calcium, as much as ¼ cup (59 ml) of milk. Almonds are also higher in fiber than any other nut. One ounce of blanched almonds contains 1.5 g fiber. Unblanched almonds contain nearly double the fiber as blanched.

If you are pregnant, almonds can be a nutritious way of preventing certain birth defects because of their high folic acid content. I remember my mother urging me to eat almonds every day when I was expecting. She insisted that it would make the baby’s brain develop better, a sure way to convince any expecting mother to eat almonds.

It’s important to buy almonds as fresh as possible, from a shop where there is high turnaround—health food stores, farmers’ markets, or specialty nut shops. The flavor of fresh almonds really stands out.

Almonds have high oil content, so rancidity can be a problem if they are not stored correctly. I recommend buying in small quantities and storing them in sealed containers in the fridge.

All-natural almond milk is a dairy alternative that’s high in protein, fortified with vitamins A, D, and E, a good source of calcium, and 100 percent lactose and cholesterol free. It is available in health food stores.

My favorite recipe with almonds is a quick and simple chutney. It can be added to any stir-fry vegetable or as a thickening agent for gravy, as a dressing with yogurt for a vegetable salad, or even to coat any meat before baking it.

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ALMOND CHUTNEY

An easy way to add flavor and protein to a meal

1 cup roasted almonds
2 garlic cloves
8-10 curry leaves
1 teaspoon red chili powder
¾ teaspoon salt (or as per taste)
½ teaspoon sugar

Place all the ingredients in a blender and make a coarse mix. Store in a cool dry place.

Hema Hints: Add ½ teaspoon olive oil to 1 teaspoon chutney. Apply this paste to a slice of bagel. A spicy alternative to peanut butter.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.

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