I recently picked up raw tamarind pods at a local Asian market and relived a wonderful childhood memory of this tropical treat. On a visit to a village in India, I recalled taking refuge from the harsh summer heat under the shady boughs of a tamarind tree. I joined some children in trying to get its delicious fruit by pelting its branches with whatever we could find on the ground. Once the pods fell, we hungrily dove toward our treats.
The tamarind pod seemed unappetizing at first glance. The large ones were a few inches long, crooked, and the color of dirt—but the first crack of the mature pod released a wonderful, pungent aroma assuring us of a true epicurean adventure. We eagerly gnawed the sweet and sour, dark brown meat that clung around the seeds.
As a child, the journeys of such discoveries are fascinating as we were not concerned with the tough strands of fibers that need to be pulled apart in this unrefined fruit. We were unconcerned about our sticky fingers and relished the last few morsels on our hands. We even ventured to make games out of the glossy purplish-red seeds that resembled precious stones. Our unseasoned minds were unaware of the gift these precious “stones” could afford not only to this rural community, but many other towns facing the plight of malnutrition.
Tamarind is widely used in India, Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. “Tamar-Hind” is Arabic for “Indian date,” as it was dubbed, and the term made its was into Western usage. The pulp can be used in most Indian curries, drinks, and chutneys and provides an interesting sweet-and-sour zing to many dishes. The sour taste is mainly due to the high tartaric acid content in this fruit. Aside from tamarind pulp and the raw fruit, most parts of the tree including roots, bark, and leaves, are used widely from agricultural needs to deity worship in rural India.
Although the herbal uses of tamarind have been known for some time—tamarind concoctions have been used as cooling, laxative, and digestive aids for centuries—the nutritional content is equally interesting. For example, 100 grams of chicken eggs equate to 11 grams of protein; tamarind yields 2-3 grams of protein per 100 grams of the raw fruit—plus 34-94 mg of calcium and 44 mg of vitamin C. It has low water content and high levels amino acids, carbohydrates, and minerals.
Interesting isn’t it how such a small fruit can be a delight not only to your palate, but also offer so many benefits! This is precisely what brings me to a more important pathway: the future. According to J.T.Williams of the publicationTamarind, tamarind trees are “easy to cultivate and underexploited.” New strains of sweet tamarind that are less acidic have created a renewed interest in growing the fruit as a commercial crop leading to expanded cultivation in some parts of Asia. In addition, because it is easy to grow in the smallest portions of land and as its fruit and seeds possess ample nutritional value, it can be an incredibly beneficial plant in low-income, rural communities plagued with substandard health conditions.
The reality of the situation, though, tempers my optimism. For tamarind to be utilized in these ways, roads must be constructed and paved to make the fruit more accessible. Also, addressing post-harvest storage issues and the need for modern equipment, such as shellers and more efficient processing technology, are necessary for expanding the production of this fruit.
In the meantime, for newcomers to tamarind, visit your local Mexican, Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern market. I like the Tamicon brand paste available at most Indian stores. Add just a few dribbles to your curries and daals for a lift. Feel free to venture into putting a bit in your Western sauces for an added boost.
If you are in the mood and feel adventurous, grab a pod to enjoy the pure taste and experience the journey of your tropical treat. A word of warning—the tamarind fruit does have a laxative effect, so a pod or two should suffice.
Shyamal Randeria-Leonard is an active partner with Meru Flavors and Food in Los Angeles. She enjoys blogging and has written articles with topics ranging from adoption to health and fitness. View her blog atwww.merucoposts.blogspot.com.