I was surprised to learn that the tamarind tree is native to Africa, so strongly is its fruit associated with India, where it has been cultivated for several thousand years; indeed, the name itself comes from the Arabic tamar hindi – Indian date. Today India is the world’s largest producer of tamarind, much of which is consumed within the subcontinent however it is also widely eaten in South East Asia, Mexico and, to a lesser extent, South America.
A member of the legume family, this long-lived tree grows well in sub-tropical and semi-arid climates and its ability to withstand temperature extremes and varying rainfall levels makes it enviably hardy and easy to grow.
Beautiful flowers with red-veined, pale yellow petals germinate to create pod-like fruits that hang from the branches like little sausages. Turning from green when young to beige-brown, the shells change from soft to hard as the fruits mature. Harvested when young, the pulpy flesh inside is creamy white and super sour – the sugars develop as the fruits ripen, turning the pulp dark brown and giving the characteristic sweet and sour tang.
Although the seeds are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked, it’s most commonly the pulp that is harvested and sold fresh or processed and used as an ingredient. Whereas many Asian cuisines use ripe tamarind pulp, the Thais also celebrate the unripe fruit, emphasising its acute acidity by pickling or balancing it out with sugar, salt, shrimp sauce and chilli.
Although ripe tamarind pods are sold whole, the pulp is often extracted, dried and compressed into blocks, or processed into paste or concentrate. The pulp blocks are the most economical way to buy tamarind but need elbow grease to transform them from a fibrous sticky mass to rich tamarind sauce, which can be reduced over heat to a thick paste.
British-Burmese food writer MiMi Aye tells me of two Burmese dishes in which tamarind is essential – let thohk son, a hand-tossed rainbow salad of noodles, potatoes and rice with dried shrimp, peanuts and vegetables dressed with tamarind, shrimp and fish sauce and na-byan kyaw, tofu and chickpea fritters which are always served with a spicy tamarind dip.
Alfred Prasad, former Director of Cuisine for the Tamarind Collection, loves “the truly distinct and delicious taste of tamarind – a wonderful sweet, sour and tangy element that adds an extra dimension” to both traditional Indian dishes and more modern cooking.
In India, tamarind has been been used as a souring agent, a preservative and medicinally. Alfred recalls how his grandmother would apply a poultice of fermented tamarind to his forehead to break a fever; it is also believed to reduce cholesterol and retard kidney stone formation. A microbiological study in 2006 confirmed its antibacterial properties.
In an era before refrigeration, home cooks found other ways to make food last. Alfred remembers his grandmother’s fish curry, pungent with tamarind and cooked fairly dry, would easily keep for a week or more – the fish almost pickled by the sugar and acidity of the tamarind.
In South India tamarind features in rasam (a spiced tomato soup) and sambar (a lentil and vegetable stew). In the North it is integral to the smooth ketchup-like imli chutney – sweetened with dates and jaggery and flavoured with spices – that is served with a wide range of chaat dishes such as bhel poori and papri chaat. It’s also wonderful with hot, freshly fried pakoras or samosas.
Imli chutney is the inspiration for Worcestershire sauce and brown sauce, by the way, as well as American steak and Japanese tonkatsu sauce.
Of course, tamarind need not be restricted to traditional Asian recipes. Alfred is enthusiastic about tamarind’s place in the pantry, suggesting that its sweet and sour tang makes it a great substitute for balsamic vinegar – try it in salad dressings with olive oil, salt and pepper, as a glaze for grilled pork or duck or toss fried calamari with tamarind, chilli flakes and garlic. Enjoy a drink of young fresh tamarind mixed with ginger and raw mango or enjoy tamarind’s sweet tart flavour in a refreshing granita.