Sweet and Sour – Tamarind in the Kitchen and Beyond

Ever heard of the Indian date? The edible one, not the one you go on to socialize. Well, that’s what Tamar Hindi derived from Arabic means. This was romanised to tamarind and is the condiment that no south Indian meal, worth its salt, can be complete without.

Today, India is the largest producer of tamarind, but this leguminous plant was originally indigenous to tropical Africa. Asian tamarind trees produce longer pods than their African cousins: each pod has 12 seeds whereas the African and West Indian varieties have short pods with only six seeds. The fruit is edible though the green pulp of the raw fruit is almost impossibly sour. As tamarind fruits ripen they get softer, a rich brown and acquire their hallmark tangy- sweet taste.

Tamarind pulp from the ripened fruit is used extensively to flavor foods in Indian cuisine. It is also used across the Middle East, the Levant and Africa in meat-based stews, mostly combined with dried fruit to add more sweetness to the tang. Across the world, it is used varyingly in cooking sorbets, ice creams, snacks and even in Worcestershire sauce.

Cooking and culinary methods and ingredients have evolved over generations of human civilization, as much for the pleasure of taste as for the benefits they bestow Tamarind is no exception.

Good digestive:

Tamarind has sizeable quantities of malic acid and tartaric acid and potassium bitartrate. Its sticky pulp is a rich source of fiber- 100gms of the fruit has 13% fiber. This increased bulk in food and adds to good digestion and bowel movements. The fiber also protects the colon mucous membranes. It is a mild laxative and a natural one.

Good for nausea and biliousness:

Who hasn’t heard of this stereotype – the expectant mother popping a small ball of ripe tamarind into her mouth to fight nausea? Tamarind encourages the production of the digestive juice, bile, and encourages digestion. Its unique sweet-sour taste is great for fighting nausea. In fact, a piece of ripe tamarind in the mouth is indigenously used for fighting motion sickness- it is cheap and effective.

Rich source of essential minerals and vitamins:

Tamarind is a good source of potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It is rich in vitamins like thiamine, Vitamins A, and C, folic acid, niacin, among others. All these are essential for the body to function optimally. For example, potassium is an important constituent of fluids in the cell and the body in general. It helps maintain the heart rate and blood pressure. Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells.

Anti- oxidant properties:

The tartaric acid in tamarind is a rich anti-oxidant. It is also good protection for the heart and controls harmful LDL cholesterol levels.

Folk Medicine:

Tamarind is used in poultices applied to the forehead of a person suffering from fever in many Southeast Asian countries. Flowers and leaves of the tamarind tree can be added to the pulp to and applied to swollen joints for pain relief.

Beauty secret:

The pulp of tamarind is used in hair and skin care. It is used to lighten skin tone and is ideal for oily skin. It is considered a great exfoliator. Mix one teaspoon of tamarind pulp with ½ a teaspoon of turmeric and a teaspoon of honey. Apply on the face and wash off after 15 minutes. This takes care of tan, skin blemishes and is good for a smooth and even skin tone.

Thin tamarind extract can be massaged onto the scalp, allowed to soak in for half an hour and then shampooed off. This is advised to prevent hair loss.

Shine brighter:

Traditionally, Indians have always used tamarind pulp to clean articles including jewelry, made of silver. The acidic content of tamarind is good for removing the tarnish from metal objects made of brass, silver, and copper which tarnish when they react with the oxygen and moisture in the air or when they come into contact with water.

Too much of a good thing:

Tamarind is highly acidic and overuse is likely to damage tooth enamel. It can also cause stomach acidity and acid reflux if used excessively.

Take your pick:

Tamarind is available in the market in many forms today.

Dried tamarind is available throughout the year. Gently squeeze the packs to see if the tamarind is soft if you are buying the packaged variety. Too many seeds mean too little pulp, so beware the lumpy package. Tamarind in deep brown shades is preferable as it lends a rich color to the dish being cooked and tends to stay fresh longer. If you need to store tamarind for a longer time, pick a medium ripe variety with shiny seeds. Store in an airtight container. Some recommend the sprinkling of a little rock salt to prevent the fruit condiment for getting dehydrated. Since ripe tamarind is picked, “husked” and dried, it tends to collect dirt.

Ripe tamarind is not just attractive to humans: it attracts insects too. So, take care to check for pest-ridden products.

Choose a good brand to avoid that grit and insect pests.

Concentrates and ready to use pulp are also available.


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