We are all used to almond as a food product, but this fruit is also a versatile spice.
Flaked and ground almonds
Western Asia or Central Asia.
Almonds have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for more than 2,000 years. The popularity of the plant spread northwards across Europe during the Middle Ages, when it was grown in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis. Climatic conditions were not favourable for almond growing in Northern Europe, however, so attempts to grow it were largely abandoned. The most important producers for the European market today are Spain and Italy, with Californian almonds of increasing importance.
The soft interior of the fruit stone (embryo).
Rosaceae (rose family).
Sweet almonds have a delicate, nutty fragrance and taste. Bitter almonds taste strongly bitter and develop an intensive, characteristic aroma when moistened (e.g. by chewing).
Names for almond in European languages essentially derive from the Latin amygdala, itself derived from Greek amygdalē. The English "almond" is derived from Old French, via the Middle English almande. The botanical genus name prunus originates from the Latin name of the closely related prunum "plum", which in turn originates from the Greek proumnē.
The species name, dulcis "sweet" is motivated by the kernel's taste. Bitter almonds are considered a variety (var. amara, where Latin amarus means "bitter"). The Latin dulcis is the progenitor of most terms for "sweet" in Romance languages, e.g. French doux, Italian dolce, Portuguese doce and Catalan dolç.
Sweet almonds are much used in Middle Eastern cuisine.
In North Indian cooking (which was heavily influenced by the cooking of Persia), almonds are widely used with poppy seeds as a sauce thickener (wheat flour is never used for this purpose in India). Typically, almonds are fried together with other spices (cinnamon, mace, cumin and garlic or ginger) and then quenched with yoghurt. Almond pieces browned in ghee (butter fat) are a popular, aromatic decoration for fragrant biryanis or other dishes of meat with dried fruits. Some Indian desserts also contain almond, e.g. badaami kheer, a liquid almond pudding flavoured with saffron or rose water.
The most famous product of Western cuisine containing almonds is marzipan, a confection made by kneading a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and rose water. For this recipe, sweet almonds are either used alone or flavoured with a few bitter almonds.
As bitter almonds are toxic they are hard to buy in Western countries and often replaced by bitter almond essence, made by distilling a mixture of ground bitter almonds and water. Almond essence is well-suited to flavour biscuits, cakes and marzipan. Culinary use of bitter almonds is mostly limited to sweets and, if used to flavour spicy dishes such as fried pork, careful dosage is essential.