Friday, September 17, 2010

Bat nuts

I promise, this is not the way my October is going to go.  I saw these in the vegetable section of my local oriental market and, with no idea whatsoever what they were, brought them home.  They're European water caltrops, also known as bat nuts, bull nuts, devil's pod (for obvious reasons), and a variety of other names, including Jesuit nuts, and (one of) their Chinese name(s), ling jiao

They're called caltrops after the vicious four-spiked medieval weapon (the caltrops in my post have two spikes, but some varieties have four), and believe me, you wouldn't want to step on one. 

Here's the innocent-looking plant they grow from:

There are also some nice photos over here.  Water caltrops are the nuts of the aquatic plant Trapa bicornis.  In some areas of North America they are apparently growing out of control and have been designated a noxious weed.  In China (I read) they are cultivated and considered lucky because one of their Chinese names, fu, is the same as the Chinese word for happiness.  The Chinese Mid-Autumn festival is coming up, and these nuts are sometimes served as a traditional food for it, boiled or roasted.  So much for my erudition, picked up here and there on the Internet over the last day or so, before which I had never even heard of these creatures. 

So, okay, what are they like?  Well, you see them:

I admit to some difficulty working up any kind of enthusiasm about the prospect of eating fact I had to try very hard to get over the idea that it didn't want to be eaten. 

The shell is very tough and brittle.  You need a nut cracker or pliers to crack it open.  But don't eat the meat raw--it's toxic that way!  So are cashews and lima beans, so I could get over that.  What was a little (okay, a lot) more scary was that you can apparently sometimes get worms from these nuts.  But, bravely, I forged ahead.  I hope I don't get worms.

The nuts seemed fresh, but they had a faint unpleasant sewage-y smell, even after a vigorous washing and brushing, that grew more unpleasant as I worked with them.  I tried boiling them for 20 minutes with some star anise, as recommended here:

Despite the anise, the smell intensified, and I am almost positive that the star anise was added to the "recipe" to mask it, since the anise taste doesn't actually get into the nut meat.  It was nauseating enough that I opened all the windows to allow it free passage out of the house.

The cooked bat nut (which still had to be cracked open with pliers):

What does it taste like?  The taste was like chestnuts, sort of fresh-but-nothing-much.  The bad smell seemed concentrated in the shells.  The texture of the cooked nut was powdery and starchy, and I don't know how you would get the meat out whole (though no doubt there is a way: if they can do it with Brazil nuts they can do it with these).

Yes, these would make great Halloween decorations, if not for the scent, which though it departed quickly from my house, has made itself at home in my memory and I won't be buying these again...though I like the idea of a Mid-Autumn Festival a lot...


  1. That's some of the weirdest looking food I've seen, although as a huge fan of bats, I think they look really cool. I'd also have snapped them up. Thanks to your experiment, however, if I do ever see them, I will definitely not be attempting to eat them. Thank you for eating one so I don't have to!

  2. I think hanging these in your window, uncooked, on Halloween, would have been the right way to go. What are the worm symptoms? You should know, just in case. (This is the scariest "food" I've seen in a long time, not counting the the "niblets and crickets," and "centipasto" I saw in today's paper.)

  3. Give them out to the little brats, er, Trick or Treaters, on Halloween. It's a treat they'll never forget.

  4. this was an exceptionally entertaining entry!!

  5. Renae, I like bats too, but bats are cute and these are just evil.

    Shenandoah, that's a great, or at least, it made me laugh out loud.

    Andrea, thanks for feeding right into my hypocondria. Gah, centipasto? At least bat nuts are vegan...I think...

    Katee, are you joking? I ate a fraction of one, I was so scared of the worms.

  6. I do enjoy chestnuts, but I think I'd be too put off by the sewage smell, potential worms, and overall eerie feeling of batnuts to actually try them. Who would have thought a nut could be considered creepy?

  7. Those are quite possibly the most amazing-looking food ever! Too bad they aren't more exciting, flavor-wise.

  8. heh. these are a little creepy! I like it! >:)

  9. Very interesting.

    I like Shen's idea. What will you do with the rest of them?

  10. Amazing looking nut- perfect for Halloween... especially the smell LOL!

  11. Tiffany, they are seriously eerie.

    Forget eating them--if I hadn't I bet I'd have been more likely to keep them around--think how they'd look tossed carelessly among ornamental squash (or anything else) in a fruit bowl! They probably keep quite well. I read that they can exist in lake bottoms for up to twelve years...Maybe they don't *all* smell like sewage...

    Rose, I have to admit they're composted. That is, they're in the compost bin, probably I'll be freaking out over them in the garden for years to come.