Nut something to write home about

November 17, 2019

Pine nuts are the fanciest of all nuts — small, cute, with a sweet and subtle flavour. They also happen to cost a small fortune


As kids we used to say that chalgoza (pine nut; a popular dry fruit) was expensive because it meant “Go” in all the three languages that make its name — “Chal” in Urdu, “Go” in English, and “Za” in Pushto. So, while the rest of the dry fruits such as peanuts, apricots, almonds, and pistachios could be had for four annas (twenty five paisas) for a good size packet, chalgoza was to be had for seventy five paisas!

A few days back, the robbery of 23 sacks of chalgoza at a warehouse in Wana, South Waziristan, made headlines when armed men took off with their heist! The price of the stolen pine nut sacks was estimated at Rs12 million. While this prompted a number of comments on social media, it also highlighted the price of pine nut in the market being retailed between six to seven thousand rupees a kilo!

Chalgoza’s botanical name is ‘pinus gerardiana’. The tree which produces pine nuts is found in the upper regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Northern Areas, and Kashmir. Chalgoza pine is a hardy tree and can stand prolonged drought, high winds, and severe winter cold. It comprises about 18 percent of the coniferous forests of Pakistan. However, the current climate change and pressures from habitat are having a negative impact on the ecosystem of the chalgoza forests.

During the 1990s, while working on a USAID funded forestry project, I visited the Suleiman Mountain Range at the border of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Besides, and Punjab comprises the world’s largest pure stand of chalgoza forests spread over 260 sq km; the range is also the home for markhor (capra falconeri), one of the largest and most impressive member of the caprinae or goat family, which is the national animal of Pakistan. The habitat degradation and scale of human intervention were evident even then! The rest of the chalgoza forests are spread in the other parts of Pakistan and play an important role in maintaining ecological and environmental balance and income to local communities.

During our trip we found that the high-value tree crops from these forests form an important source of food and cash income for forest-resource dependent communities. Weak land management and restocking affect these resources leading to social instability.

Pine trees in the main forest of Pakistan are centuries old. A paper in the Pakistan Journal of Botany {41(2): 849-860, 2009} reported a tree of Pinus gerardiana in Zhob district of Balochistan had a diametre at breast height (DBH) of 65 cm, indicating an age of approximately 411 years.

Interestingly, Pakistani pine nut has the biggest kernel size in the world. It is not only eaten as a dry fruit, but also forms part of traditional dishes like pilaf, and some sweet dishes.

During 2017-2018, Pakistan produced 3,700 metric tonnes of pine nuts (about 18 percent of the global production). Pine nuts are the fanciest of all nuts — smaller, cuter, with a sweet, subtle flavour. They also happen to cost a small fortune. So, what makes chalgoza such an expensive fruit?

Some pine nuts take up to three years to mature. They are also difficult to harvest, this justifies their high price, according to locals and traders of the commodity.

Pine trees prefer the northern hemisphere and are found in Asia, Europe, and North America. Of the 115 species of pines, globally, only about 18 produce nuts fit for human consumption. Our ancestors from the paleolithic period ate them, the Roman soldiers carried these as food during raids on Britain over 2,000 years ago, and the Greek authors mentioned pine trees as food producers circa 300 BC.

Recently, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), under The Restoration Initiative (TRI), and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in partnership with Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change and provincial Forest Departments launched a project to reverse deforestation and land degradation of chalgoza pine forests of Ghais, in Diamer district (Gilgit-Baltistan). It will engage local populations to play their role in the chalgoza value chain and other livelihood development activities.

Of all the jokes and memes related to this, this scribe liked the one about a couple walking into a dry fruit shop where a young man is heard ordering a kilogramme of chalgoza. The lady turns to the man and says, “Get his contact; he is fit to look after our daughter!”

So, let’s go out there and buy ourselves some chalgozas!

Pakistani chilgoza: Nut something to write home about