For the love of tamarind
I recently had a pleasant childhood flashback when I saw a basket of tamarind in my local supermarket and I was immediately taken back to my childhood in Guyana. Tamarind is not a fruit which I see very often here in Haiti. Although it is definitely known and there are trees here, it is not used much beyond eating it in its natural state, making tamarind juice or jam. In my thoughts, I was whisked off to the tuckshop at St. Agnes’ in Georgetown. At break time, we would run out to buy tamarind balls and other goodies to fill our mouths and hearts with contentment. Those old time familiar brown sugar coated balls of loveliness still make my mouth water just thinking about them. Most West Indians are familiar with tamarind balls: a tangy, salty and sweet confection made from fresh tamarind pulp and seed, salt, sugar and pepper. Although we are in the Caribbean, this preparation in Haiti is unfamiliar and sadly, I have not eaten a good tamarind ball from Guyana in years.
Another delicious tamarind confection I loved as a child was called a “tamarind sour”. This viscous spicy sauce was much like a melted tamarind ball with respect to the ingredients and flavor profile. The difference being that the ingredients were cooked and served by the spoonful drizzled over a serving of “chicken foot”, a delicious thin savory fried treat made of seasoned chickpea or yellow split pea flour. Among other local tamarind favorites were tamarind juice or frozen tamarind icicles which we sucked from the plastic casings and were a local treat in the humid temperatures of Guyana. Cooking with Tamarind was also a common practice. A few pods could be added to curries like pumpkin and shrimp or fish curries to give a zest; much like the effect given by adding a slice of young green mango. In Guyana, tamarind was familiar appreciated and used everywhere.
The Tamarind tree is native to Africa, but has also been used for millennia in India and South East Asia. Also known as Indian date, Tamarind Indica is an evergreen variety and is actually classified as a legume and not a fruit. Tamarind trees are slow growing but can reach heights of up to 80’ at maturity. They are known for having a wide canopy and offer great shade in the tropical heat. Tamarind trees have a very long lifespan and have been known to live and thrive in some instances for a hundred years. The productivity of the trees can span a period of 50-60 years. This tree is a valuable resource as every part can be used in some way from its bark, leaves and fruit. Tamarind wood is a hearty hard wood which can be used in furniture making and general carpentry. Tamarind trees are an excellent cash crop for many communities from which a variety of things can be derived.
The fruit of the tamarind tree grows in a brown encasing or pod. As a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) much like beans, peas and peanuts, tamarind pods share similar characteristics. The fruit can vary from 2” to 9” in length. Green tamarind pods are softer and more tender than ripe ones. The interior is green and whitish in appearance. When the pod ripens, it takes on a swollen curved brittle exterior. Once the shell case is broken, the fruit inside is revealed and a hard seed covered with a soft, reddish brown pulp lies within. There is also a fibrous strand which envelops the inner fruit, almost protecting the seed pods. The pulp is quite sour naturally, but as it ripens, the tamarind takes on a sour sweet taste. Tamarind is high in tartaric acid but actually has quite a high sugar content. A tamarind tree is a very useful, shady and versatile addition to any garden.
Here are 10 amazing facts about tamarind:
1. Tamarind is rich in antioxidants.
2. Popularly used in folk and traditional medicine for anti–inflammatory properties. Tamarind leaves, bark and pounded seeds have been used in poultices on wounds which promote healing from ancient times.
3. Rich in vitamin C.
4. Tamarind is used as a fever reducer and coolant due to its high acidity content. Tamarind beverages are often drunk in hot countries to refresh and regulate body temperatures.
5. Tamarind pulp has long been known as a laxative while the tamarind leaves made in a tisane work contrary by acting as a tea for diarrhea.
6. Tamarind is also taken for liver and gall bladder problems and is also seen as effective in helping to treat stomach disorders and nausea in pregnancy.
7. Anti macrobial and anti fungal properties are also ones which tamarind is said to possess. Studies are being made into the effectiveness of tamarind against bacteria.
8. The tamarind seed naturally emits a pectin which means that once used in a cooked recipe, it will thicken naturally without the need for a starch or gelatin.
9. The high levels or tartaric acid also make tamarind perfect for cleaning brass, copper and silver items.
10. Tamarind is rich in magnesium which is highly beneficial to the body for lowering blood pressure as well as diabetes.
Tamarind is very popular in the Indian subtropical region as well as Central America and the Caribbean. Wherever there is an abundance of this plant, you will find that it is a common ingredient in the food culture. The cuisines of India, Thailand and Mexico in particular have foods which use a great deal of tamarind in their cuisines. Tamarind is thought to have been transported to Asia by human migration. The Spanish and Portuguese introduced Tamarind to Central and South America which they discovered on their travels.
What would a Pad Thai be without the signature tang of tamarind sauce to flavor the noodles? Delicious South Indian fish and seafood curries are often vamped up with a bit of zesty tamarind paste. Tamarind’s sweet sour flavor makes it perfect for spicy chutneys, cooling drinks and delicious sauces. Tamarind is also a key ingredient used in making Worcestershire and A1 steak sauce. The fruit has a naturally occurring tenderizing effect on meats, which make it a good addition to these popular sauces. In Mexico as well as many Central American countries, Tamarind sweets, desserts, Agua Fresca and tamarind flavored cocktails are also favorites. In the Caribbean, tamarind is used to make a delicious refreshing juice and sauces as well as the tamarind balls I mentioned earlier. A tamarind chutney is an amazing condiment to accompany many appetizers. Made with fresh tamarind, garlic, cumin, brown sugar, coriander, salt, sugar and chili pepper. Douse your doubles, potato balls, phoulourie or samosas with this and you’ll taste the most heavenly accompaniment to these well known Indian treats. Thankfully tamarind made its way across the globe to many distant shores and has thrived in so many countries today. It has been adopted and ingrained in so many food cultures that it is almost unthinkable that this amazingly delicious pod may not have been always native to the country.
Summertime is when tamarind is most abundant. Once the pods remain unbroken, the fruit inside will stay moist and fresh for a while. I like to freeze fresh shelled fresh tamarind as it retains its flavor well if kept in a well sealed bag. Thankfully, concentrated tamarind sauce can be found in Asian markets and is a great acquisition for cuisines which use the tangy sauce for stir fries, noodles or salad dressings. These alternative forms of tamarind are great for recipes both for the ease as well as when tamarind is not in season. The Thai varieties of liquid tamarind concentrate are especially good. I use them for making PadThai and stir fry sauces as well as for making a quick glass of juice. The concentrate eliminates all of the work of boiling the seed pods and straining, but it is a thinner sauce than a fresh tamarind sauce which tends to have more natural pectin. Tamarind can also be found shelled and packaged in blocks. This form is also very convenient and I find the Indian varieties are wonderful as they have the seed and fiber included. It is not the most appealing look, but the flavor and texture is spot on for cooking. To extract the pulp, I boil a portion of the semi dried tamarind to reconstitute and then I make my chutneys or dipping sauces. As fresh tamarind is not always easy for me to find, I like to have these two alternatives available in my pantry so that I can always have my tamarind fix on hand in some form.
Here is a quick little sauce which can be used to accompany many hors d’ouevres. I hope you enjoy it.
Spicy Tamarind sauce
1 cup tamarind, shelled and cleaned
2 cups water
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
1-2 hot peppers finely chopped
1 tsp Cilantro, finely chopped
Put tamarind and water into a pot and bring to a boil.
Simmer for about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and strain the liquid to remove the seeds and fibers.
Press on the fibers to remove all of the pulp.
Pour liquid back into the pot and add the remaining ingredients.
Simmer on medium heat until sauce thickens.
You may also add a bit of cornstarch slurry if you prefer a thick sauce.
Serve with samosas, potato balls, curry puffs, doubles or pholourie.