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Pistachios: Historic and Healthy Nuts

posted on: Aug 8, 2018

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Pistachios (Pistacia vera), whose name derives from the Persian word pisteh, is believed to have originated in Iran.  For thousands of years they thrived in western Asia, in the area from Syria to Afghanistan.  They were prized for their creamy flavour and nutritious value by royalty and the elite in the ancient world, and were the favourite nuts in the imperial court of Queen Belghais of Sheba.  Interestingly, they are one of only two nuts that are mentioned in the Bible.

During Roman times the pistachio tree was introduced to Greece and Italy from Syria.  On the other hand some historians indicate that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the cultivation of pistachios disappeared from Italy and were later re-introduced by the Arabs to Sicily after their conquest of the island.  In his book Islamic Sicily, Aziz Ahmad states the name of the ‘pistachio’ possibly came into Sicilian from Arabic then moved on into the other languages of Europe.

Pistachio Tree-Hama, Syria

Pistachios were introduced to the U.S.A. by a Syrian immigrant in the late 1890’s and began to be cultivated commercially in California.   Today, the state’s annual production is second only to that of Iran, the largest producer in the world, followed by Turkey and Syria, the third and fourth largest.  Other pistachio producing areas are the Indian sub-continent, China, Greece, Italy and Tunisia. However, the vast majority of the world supply of pistachios is consumed in the United States.

Also known as the green almond, the pistachio is related to the cashew.  The tree, growing at times up to 30-feet tall, thrives in stony-poor soil and in lands with cool winters.  It does well in high heat and with a bit of moisture, needing little care and living, at times, for centuries.  Its attractive foliage and clusters of reddish-wrinkled fruits makes it an eye-catching ornamental plant.

The nuts are harvested when the outer husk covering the shell loosens and falls off easily when the tree is shaken.  The husk covers a pale green nut encased in a beige coloured shell. A single tree in its prime can produce some 50 pounds of husked nuts.  When placed in airtight plastic bags and stored in a refrigerator un-roasted and roasted pistachios will last for months. However when frozen, they will last for years and still retain their flavour and mineral content.

Considered one of the best of the well-known nuts, in the majority of cases, pistachios are roasted and salted un-shelled.   From 80 to 90% of pistachios are prepared in this way and consumed as snacks. Un-roasted and shelled pistachios have a sweet flavour and are used in cooking.  In the Middle East they are mainly utilized in desserts both as ingredients and for decorative purposes.

Unsalted pistachio nuts are a very healthy food, but rich in oil which can add to weight problems.  They should be substituted for other high fat foods, but only a small handful, no more than four times a week. Unsalted, they have a high-potassium, low-sodium content, hence, helping in regulating the body’s fluid balance, especially aiding in normalizing blood pressure.  In addition, they are also an excellent source of protein and have a good amount of calcium, iron, phosphorus, thiamine, zinc, vitamin B6 and vitamin E.

Pistachios are cholesterol free and relatively low in calories in comparison to other nuts.  They are high in fibre and low in saturated fat but contain a good amount of monounsaturated fat, leading to a cut in the risk of heart attack.

Pistachios also contain an antioxidant that has been associated with a decreased risk for developing diseases such as cancer. Sarah K. Gebauer, a graduate student in integrative biosciences at Penn State University, said in April 2007 to attendees at the Experimental Biology Conference, “Pistachio amounts of 1.5 ounces and 3 ounces – one to two handfuls – reduced risk for cardiovascular disease by significantly reducing LDL cholesterol levels and the higher dose significantly reduced lipoprotein ratios.”

Much used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Indian cuisines, unsalted pistachios, containing 165 calories per ounce are an excellent addition to vegetarian diets.  They are superb when used as ingredients in appetizers, breads, cookies, ice creams and other sweets, muffins, pâtés, pesto, salads, sauces, stuffing for fish and meats, vegetarian foods and, as well, for garnishing.

These kitchen uses and their healthful attributes are appreciated in many countries, especially in Syria where visitors are often given a bag of pistachios as a parting gift.  Perhaps, these few recipes will give an idea as to why pistachios make excellent gifts.

Spicy Pistachio Mashed Potatoes Appetizer

Serves 8

3 cups mashed potatoes

1/2 head garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios

4 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

6 tablespoons water Place potatoes in a bowl and set aside.

Place remaining ingredients in a blender and blend for 1 minute. Thoroughly stir the blender’s content into the potatoes; then spread on a platter and serve.



Serves 6 to 8

A gourmet delight, this dish makes a rich addition to the vegetarian kitchen.

1 cup fine burghul, soaked in water for 10 minutes

1 cup raw ground unsalted pistachio nuts

3 cups chopped onions

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed

In a strainer, press water out of burghul then set aside.

Place pistachios, 1 cup of the onions, flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, allspice, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, 2 tablespoons of the oil and the burghul in a food processor; then process into a coarse paste and set aside.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan; then stir-fry remaining onions and garlic over medium heat until they begin to brown. Stir in remaining salt and pepper; then set aside.

Divide food processor mixture into two equal portions. Spread one portion evenly in 8- by 12-inch greased pan. Spread frying pan contents over top, then spread second portion of mixture evenly over top of onions. Cut into 2-inch squares; then sprinkle with remaining olive oil.

Bake uncovered in a 350° F preheated oven for 40 minutes then serve hot or cold.


Pistachio/Honeyed Rice

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 cup coarsely ground pistachios

4 cups hot cooked rice

4 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Heat oil in a frying pan then sauté pistachios until they begin to brown.  Stir in remaining ingredients then serve warm.


Pomegranate and Pistachio Dessert

Serves 6

seeds from 5 medium pomegranates

1 cup finely chopped unsalted pistachios

6 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon almond extract

Thoroughly combine all ingredients until honey coats all pomegranate seeds and pistachios.  Place in a serving bowl; then chill and serve.

Pistachio/Fruit Dessert

Serves 6

1 large plum, diced

1 medium apple, peeled, cored and diced

1 medium peach, diced

1 cup diced cantaloupe

1/4 cup raisins, rinsed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup honey, melted

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 cup couscous

4 tablespoons crushed pistachios

Combine plum, apple, peach, cantaloupe, raisins, lemon juice, honey and water in a saucepan then cover and cook over low heat for 12 minutes.  Add butter, cinnamon and couscous, then, stirring often, cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until couscous is done, adding a little water if necessary.

Transfer to a serving platter and allow to cool for 1 hour then sprinkle with the pistachios just before serving.

Fig and Pistachio Balls

1 cup pistachios pulverized

1/2 pound dried figs, with stock ends removed

1/2 of an orange peel, finely chopped

4 tablespoons creamed honey

1 teaspoon rosewater

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup icing sugar

In a food processor, place pistachios, figs and orange peel, then process until ingredients are finely ground. Add honey, rosewater and cinnamon, then process until dough is formed. Form into balls the size of small walnuts, then set aside.

Place icing sugar on platter, then roll balls in icing sugar. Place on a serving tray, then sprinkle with remaining icing sugar, and serve.

Pistachio and Sesame Cookies

Makes about 40 cookies

1/2 cup sesame seeds

1/2 cup coarsely chopped unsalted pistachios

1/2 cup honey

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups butter

1 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups flour

2 cups wheat hearts or semolina

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Place sesame seeds, pistachios and honey in separate bowls; then set aside.

Place eggs, butter and sugar in a food processor; then process into paste. Transfer to a mixing bowl then add flour, wheat hearts or semolina, baking powder and salt. Knead into a dough, adding a little water if necessary.

Form into golf ball-sized balls then press balls, one at a time, into the pistachios and flatten with fingers on greased baking trays. Continue until all the balls are finished; then brush each cookie with honey and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Bake in a 3500 F preheated oven for 15 minutes or until the cookies turn golden brown; then remove and allow to cool before serving.

Pistachio Candy

2 cups corn syrup

3 egg whites, beaten until stiff peaks form

2 cups shelled unsalted pistachios

In deep saucepan, bring corn syrup to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.

Lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly until syrup begins to thicken.  It will be ready when a little is dropped into cold water forming a hard ball.  Remove from heat.

Quickly fold syrup into egg whites and stir quickly until smooth.  Quickly stir in pistachios then spread evenly on greased serving platter.  While still warm, cut into serving pieces with oiled knife.

Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.