Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

International Awards Winner · Singapore Malaysia Food History 🇸🇬 johorkaki@gmail

History of Candlenut · Buah Keras · Kemiri · Kukui Nut · Indian Walnut 角力仁 · 南洋石栗

Candlenut known as buah keras (hard fruit) in Malay and kemiri in Indonesian is indispensable in Indonesian, Malay and Peranakan cuisine.

Nyonya Laksa

The waxy candlenut is at least 50% oil (healthy unsaturated type) which makes it taste good and addictive to some 😄 The oily nut is used as a thickener in curries, stews, rempah (spice paste) and sambal (relish) to make them creamier, smoother, richer as well as impart a slight nutty taste and aroma.


For example, candlenut pounded or ground into a paste is found in Indonesian / Malay / Peranakan recipes of rendang, Nyonya laksa, satay sauce, sambal kemiri, sambal bajak, chicken curry kapitan, sayur lodeh, etc.

Sambal Kerimi is made by grinding roasted candlenut together with chili pepper, red onion, garlic and salt to make a spicy hot candlenut paste.

(Note: Candlenut is slightly toxic when raw and should only be eaten cooked.)

Macadamia Nut

The candlenut looks and taste similar to macadamia nut as they are from the same spurge family of trees (scientific name Aleurites Moluccanus). In places where candlenut is hard to come by e.g. in North America and Europe, macadamia nut can be substituted for candlenut in Indonesian and Malay recipes. Image of macadamia nut courtesy of flickr.

Candlenut was first mentioned in Species Plantarum compiled by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The Species Plantarum still influence the naming of plants to this day. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The candlenut is a big leafy tree as tall as 60 - 90 feet. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The candlenut is the kernel of the seed in the candlenut fruit. The ripen fruits fall to the ground. These fruits are collected, the seed extracted, cracked open and the kernel is harvested. 

Though it has Moluccas (today's Sulawesi) in its scientific name Aleurites Moluccanus, the origin of candlenut is unknown as the hardy, fast-growing tree spread across tropical Africa, India, Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines), Australia and the Pacific (as far as New Zealand) since prehistoric times i.e. before recorded history.

The distribution of the candlenut tree coincide roughly with the dispersal of Austronesian people across the Pacific, Indonesian archipelago, to the Indian Ocean and Madagascar. 
Map of Austronesian migration courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ancient Austronesian catamarans conquered the South China Sea and crossed the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 
It is possible that the candlenut was carried along by prehistoric migrations of Austronesians. Based on archaeological evidence (remains of harvested candlenuts), the candlenut is believed to be first domesticated in east Indonesia around Sulawesi and Timor during the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age). Image of catamaran courtesy of Wikipedia.

With such a wide geographic footprint, the candlenut is known by many different names. In India, it is known as Indian nut / Indian walnut, buah keras in Malaysia, kukui nut in the Pacific, etc. In Chinese, candlenut is known as 角力仁 or 南洋石栗.

In Indonesia, where candlenut is an important ingredient in Indonesian cuisine, it is known by many names according to the region or ethnicity. Candlenut is known as sapiri (in Makassar), bintalo dudula (Gorontalo), sakete (Ternate), hagi (Buru), muncang (Sunda), komere (Madura), kameri (Bali), kemiri (Java) and kereh (Aceh). The Bugis people call it ampiri, Bataks name it hambiri and it is known as buah kareh to Minangkabau people.

In Hawaii, roasted candlenut is ground and mixed with salt to make a greasy relish known as Inamona.

The candlenut tree was designated the state tree of the state of Hawaii in 1959.

Candlenut has many non food related uses. Due to its high oil content, candlenut oil is used to make candles, hence the name. In Hawaii, candlenuts are strung together with coconut leaf midrib to make torches (that's why candlenuts are called kukui which means light in Hawaiian). Candlenut is used to make torches in a similar way in Timor (Indonesia).

Today, candlenut is also used to make lubricants, paints, cosmetics, lotions, ointments, shampoo, hair conditioner, etc.

Written by Tony Boey on 2 Jan 2021

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