Pili nuts grow on an evergreen tree (pili tree). The botanical name of the tree is canarium ovatum and is native to parts of Northern Australia, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. That said what has put this nut on the map is the fact the pili is being commercially grown in the Philippines.
The fruit is a drupe. Examples of other drupes are peaches, almonds and cherries (and there are many more too). A drupe has a fleshy coating with a shell (or pit) inside. Inside the pit is what we call a nut.
Pili nuts require some processing before they can be eaten. The Mount Mayon company, a producer of these nuts, describes a secret process that includes 17 steps. The short version is the nut has be separated from the fruit. The nuts are sprouted then air dried. They are not roasted but they cannot be considered "raw" either. This is similar to the cashew nut which needs to be processed before it can be eaten but the nuts don't necessarily have to be roasted.
First the nut is light and slightly crisp. The flavor is similar to a macadamia nut. Both nuts are skinless and white. One writer described the flavor as slightly like an almond. I question if the person really ever ate a pili nut. They taste nothing like almonds to me. You may notice that pili nuts typically come salted or coated in a cocoa coating. I suspect they may be pretty bland without a flavoring. I've not tasted an unsalted or flavored pili nut so I can't say for sure.
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The representative I spoke to from the Mount Mayon pili nut producer told us how their growers use (almost) all parts of the pili fruit to avoid waste. The hull around the pit is dried and used for cooking fuel (like charcoal). The nuts have some oil content so they can express pili nut oil. The nuts are also made into pili nut butter.
Pili nuts are clearly a winner as a nut snack. They can also be added to your favorite cookie or in other types of baked quick breads or baked good. Sprinkle a few atop your yogurt to add some extra fiber and protein.
There are a few producers selling in the U.S. and you can find them easily online. Amazon of course has them Buy Pili Nuts but then doesn't Amazon have everything? I have not seen them yet in grocery stores but I'm sure they are out there somewhere. They are not inexpensive. Expect to pay around $2.50 or more per ounce. As the nuts become more popular in the U.S. I expect them to become more plentiful and the price should drop a little.
We found the folks at Mount Mayon at the San Francisco Fancy Foods (Specialty Foods) show. They produce two styles of pili nuts. The first is the simple version with sea salt. The nuts were light, crispy with a nice hint of salt. The flavor was like a mild macadamia nut.
Their other product was the pili nut with a light cocoa coating. The rep didn't divulge how they do it but the cocoa coating was a light dusting that did not wipe away when you pick it up. The flavor was delicate but with a rich cocoa flavor that was not at all overly sweet. I found both delicious and I could see having both on hand for different applications.