A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are pistachios colored red?

June 28, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Why are pistachios colored red?

This practice has an ancient history, rooted in Hindu mythology. The goddess Kali, wild-woman consort to Shiva, is often portrayed naked with a long tongue and bloody fangs. She's got dark skin and red eyes, wears a necklace of skulls and has a number of arms carrying unspeakable things. She laughs loudly and dances madly. Forget horses--Kali rides lions and tigers. One might think she's dangerous and out of control, but I tell you, it gives you a sense of peace and security to have her on your side. She is powerfully destructive but also awesomely creative. And it's not a party unless she's there.

The specific story that spawned the red pistachio tradition was the one about the demon, Raktabija. Nobody could kill this guy. Every drop of his blood landing on the battlefield would transform itself into a mini-Raktabija clone. So pretty soon there was a whole squadron of Raktabijas. The other gods went to Shiva for help, but he was too busy meditating in the forest. (Who could blame him?) Kali rose to the challenge, though. She rode her lion onto the battlefield, long hair flying, fought the demons and unleashed her mighty tongue to catch every drop of Raktabija's blood before it could hit the ground and transform into another enemy. Needless to say, she won the battle. But she didn't leave well enough alone. A woman after my own heart, she figured anything worth doing is worth over-doing, and--drunk on Raktabija's blood--she went on to wreak havoc across the cosmos, annihilating anyone who crossed her path. Shiva finally calmed her down, but most pictures show him under her foot, sometimes with her munching on his intestines. Talk about feasting on your lover.

So pistachios were dyed red many centuries ago to represent the drops of Raktabija's blood captured by Kali's extraordinary tongue, or perhaps to symbolize her red eyes, or the offerings of blood made to Kali today by her many Hindu worshippers.

[Pause.]

Okay, so it's a real myth, but I completely fabricated the connection with pistachios.

The real story of red pistachios isn't that interesting. Years ago when pistachios were all imported into the U.S., the antiquated harvesting and processing methods in the Middle East often left blemishes on the hulls. So they dyed them to mask the unsightly marks. They figured the bright red color would also draw more attention to them in vending machines where they had to compete with Good N'Plentys. Now that pistachios are grown in the U.S., they are usually sold in their natural state.

But what kind of Mailbag column would that make?

To order red chile flavored pistachios from New Mexico, go to http://www.eagleranchpistachios.com.

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