As it is scientifically called, "Tamarindus indica" is an abundantly consumed fruit worldwide. More commonly called tamarind, it is thought to have originated in the tropical climates of Africa, growing through the Sudan. Early in history, the trees were migrated to India. When tamarind ripens, it is encased by a cinnamon-colored brittle pod. Each pod contains seeds that are glossy, dark-brown squares the size of a nickel and lengthy fibers thick as sewing thread. Tamarind can be used for numerous reasons, including food, herbal medicine and dyes.
Tamarind comes in sweet and sour varieties. The sour variety is used in Indian cooking, and the sweet version flavors the cuisine of Thailand. The use of either variety depends on how you are using it; in food, the choice is based on what flavor is wanted, but in dyes, either sweet or sour would provide the necessary color.
Tamarind in Food
Tamarind can be used in various ways. The sour variety is used in flavoring rice, chutneys and various "chaats" (appetizers) in India. Often, the pod itself is cracked open and the fleshy fruit devoured directly. In Thailand, tamarind is often used to flavor curries. In the Caribbean, the fruit is turned into a pulp and combined with powdered sugar to form a patty called "sweetmeat." It has been used to form a carbonated beverage in Guatemala, Mexico and India.
Tamarind is used as a natural laxative in herbal medicine, with approximately 5 g of fiber per 100 g of pulp. Across the world, tamarind has been used in creams and lotions, treating infections, indigestion and leprosy. Tamarind has other uses, such as a natural color dye and a natural cleanser for silver, copper and brass.
How to Eat Tamarind
Tamarind is often consumed as a fruit, but a pod must be prepared prior to eating. As shown in the picture, the fleshy fruit is encapsulated by a brittle, brown pod. To take the tamarind out of the pod, crack the covering. It will break into pieces, each of which must be removed. Tamarind also contains fibers along the length of the fruit, which can be peeled off individually. Once cleaned, the fruit may be consumed. Discard the seeds.
A Recipe Using Tamarind
Tamarind chutney is often paired with the Indian appetizer called samosas.
You will need: 10 fresh tamarind pods or ½ pkg. of pressed and shelled tamarind (found in Indian groceries); 2 ½ cups water; 15 fresh dates; 2 to 3 cloves fresh garlic or 1 tsp. garlic paste; and salt and jalapeño to taste.
Allow tamarind to sit in 1 ½ cups warm water for about 1 hour. The water should turn brown as it absorbs the flavor of the tamarind. Squeeze the tamarind to release juices periodically through the hour.
Roughly chop dates and soak in 1 cup warm water for 15 to 20 minutes to allow them to soften. Once soft, squeeze the dates to form a paste with the water. The mashed-up dates will form the base of the chutney and should thicken the water.
Add the tamarind-flavored water to thin out the chutney, avoiding any fibers or seeds in the tamarind. Once combined, stir until the consistency is smooth (a few chunks of dates are okay and can be desirable). The tamarind's sour flavor combines with the date's sweetness. Finish the chutney by adding salt, garlic and jalapeños to taste. Serve with samosas.