The Overlooked Nut That Will Thicken Up Sauces

For sure, nuts have always been an important food for most of us, and it's the rare household that doesn't keep one variety or another in its cupboard at all times. Whether we eat them whole, mashed into nut butters, or as an addition to baked treats, nuts are a significant source of protein and vitamins, are low in cholesterol, and they continue to be the go-to snack for nutrition-conscious consumers. Additionally, nuts are used in flours, as alternative types of milk, and in non-dairy products (per Chef Works).

The different kinds of nuts are countless – peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamias – need we go on? But there are other less-known, exotic nuts that not only have distinctive tastes, but have unique uses in the preparation of food. Candlenuts belong in this category and have been especially touted for their use as a thickening agent in many sauces and dishes.

Sauces - in a nutshell

Candlenuts (aka kukui nut) are soft, oily seeds inside a hard-shelled nut, found in the tropical rainforests of Australia, Malaysia, and South Pacific islands (via Epicentre). They were named because the flammable oil content makes them burn like a candle – in Malaysia, for example, these nuts would be strung up and lit on trees or used for torches (per Culinary Lore). According to Serious Eats, they are used extensively in Indonesian cooking, pounded into a paste to thicken sauces and soups, and used as a binder for ingredients. The high oil content in ground candlenuts makes the gravy thicker in stews, and when added to the chili pastes in curries, it makes the food creamier as well (via Nyonya Cooking). Although its taste is somewhat like almonds, it is more bitter and intense and can overpower soups and other foods, so should be used in smaller amounts (according to Serious Eats). Serious Eats also warns that candlenuts are toxic if consumed raw, and must be roasted or pan-fried to release the toxicity, however, if mixed with herbs and spices, they make a savory paste that can be added to soups. Candlenuts are mostly available at Asian groceries or online.

A warning: candlenuts can have a laxative effect if used too heavily in sauces, and according to Nyonya Cooking, there were reports of women being hospitalized after using them to diet.