Tamarind from A to Z: 26 Things to Know


What is Tamarind? 26 interesting facts and figures about this delicious fruit used for both savoury and sweet dishes.
Tamarind from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Ayurveda & Co. The pulp, leaves and bark of tamarind are all used in natural remedies. In particular, the active substance of Tamarind is present in the essential oil produced with the leaves of the tamarind tropical tree.

Brazil. In Brazil, filtered tamarind pulp appears as an ingredient in condiments for red meat or poultry and in creamy fillings for cakes and puddings. Tamarind shake is made from tamarind pulp, brown sugar and sparkling water, while the addition of açaí, orange juice, red berries and mango turns it into a "tamarind-açaí smoothie". Alternatively, tamarind juice combined with condensed milk and cachaça, gives us "batida de tamarindo". Also in Guatemala, Mexico and Puerto Rico, there are many refreshing tamarind-based still or sparkling soft drinks.

Chutney. The ever popular Indian preserve most of us know as mango or papaya chutney (to name but a couple of varieties), also boasts a tamarind version: going under the name of "imli chatni", it is one of the most popular accompaniments for "chaat", that is to say the typical snacks or spicy starters such as "samosa" (fried pastry bites filled with meat and vegetables or vegetables alone), "dahi vada" (mung bean balls dipped in yogurt) and "pakora" (vegetable fritters in chick pea flour batter).

Description. A slow-growing tropical tree belonging to the family of Fabaceae, that can reach a height of up to 30 metres. The tamarind tree produces rather inconspicuous flowers of a pale yellow colour or with red or orange streaks, which grow in clusters. The fruit is a brown curved pod, from 10 to 15 cm in length: it contains a pulp which gradually changes colour from green to reddish brown and then to dark brown, with seeds numbering from 3 to 12. Its wood, which is used for constructing furniture and carved elements, as well as in the building industry (floors and ceilings), has a dark red heartwood which tends to become yellowish and less durable towards the bark.

Etymology. The word "Tamarind" derives from the Arabic word "tamar hindī", which literally means "Indian date". On the other hand, in India, tamarind is called "imli" (in Hindi-Urdu) but also "almi" and "chinch", in Malaysia it is known as "asam", in Indonesia it goes under the name of "asam jawa" or "buah asam" (literally "acidulous fruit"), in the Thai language "ma-kahm" and in Vietnamese "me".

Fruit. The dense sticky pulp of the fruit contained in the pod has a taste midway between sweet and sour, with refreshing fruity notes: the riper the fruit, the sweeter it will taste, while the unripe fruit tastes decidedly astringent. A particularly sweet variety is that of the "Makham wahn" from Thailand, grown in the northeastern province of Petchaboon.

Green tamarind thokku. Also known as "hunasekayi thokku", this is a preserve similar to chutney, made from unripe tamarind, which is widely used in the states of the Karnataka (south-west India) and of the Andhra Pradesh (central-eastern India). It is served with boiled rice and ghee (clarified butter) or with stews. The unripe pods are also roasted in hot ashes until they start to sizzle and crack, after which they are dipped in the ashes and finally consumed: this is a custom of the Bahamas.

Helado de tamarindo. In Puerto Rico as in Costa Rica, tamarind ice-creams and sorbets are very popular; in the streets of the Puerto Rican town of Mayagüez, it is not unusual to come across street vendors touting tamarind syrup granita.

Indigenous. The plant, going under the scientific name of "Tamarindus indica", originates from Tropical Africa and Madagascar: it actually grows wild in Sudan, Cameroon, Tanzania, Nigeria... However, since it has been farmed from time immemorial in India, some believe it is an indigenous species of the Indian subcontinent (also among the world's foremost producers). It was supposedly introduced to Latin America in or around the XVI century: today it is widely cultivated in Mexico.

Jellose. Tamarind decorticated seed kernels contain up to 48% of gel-forming substances: this was discovered in 1942 by the Indian scientists T.P. Ghose and S. Krishna. This discovery prompted the "Pectin Manufacturing Company" of Bombay to patent a process for manufacturing a purified tamarind jelly called Jellose, which would appear to be superior to the more common fruit pectin for making jellies, jams and marmalades. As well as in fruit preserves, today it is widely used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in ice-cream, mayonnaise and cheese.

Kcal. 100 g of tamarind pulp contains 239 kcal.

Lollipops (and candies). Ripe tamarind pulp combined with "jaggery" (or "jaggeree") sugar extracted from the concentrated sap of the sugar palm (Arrenga pinnata) with the addition of other ingredients (cumin, pepper, chilli pepper, garlic...) are pestle ground to make a thick sticky paste which is then shaped by hand into plum-sized balls called "Chigali lollipops", the popular lollipops (or bonbon without a stick) from the northern areas of the Indian state of Karnataka. Their flavour is an unusual mingling of sweet, spicy and acidulous notes.

Manila tamarind. Often confused with the "tamarindus indica" which belongs to the same family (Fabaceae), this is the pod of a plant originating from Central and South America but equally widespread in India, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Florida and Hawaii. Also known as "guamúchili", "pinzà", "Madras thorn", "monkeypod" and "jangal jalebi" (hindi), the pod contains a pulp whose characteristics are similar to the tamarind: sweet (or rather, very sweet) with the same acidulous and refreshing notes.

Nutritional values. The tamarind can boast elevated quantities of minerals (calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium and selenium) and is an excellent source of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, C, K, and J. Along with a 31% water content, it consists of simple sugars in a percentage of 57%, while dietary fibres, ash, proteins and fats account for 5% of the total.

Oil is extracted from the seeds (it is possible to obtain from 7 to 10 g of oil from 100 g of seeds) and not from the pulp: it is odourless, amber in colour with a slightly sweet taste recalling linseed oil.

Pulp versus paste. Both the pulp and concentrated paste of tamarind are available on the market ready to use. The former is generally sold in the form of compressed "bricks" with its seeds and fibres still intact while the latter comes in sachets or tubs and is already filtered. How do the two products compare? The latter does not need to be soaked, cooked or filtered to separate it from the seeds and fibres. It is generally believed that the "integral" version is of superior quality and flavour. There is also a very black concentrated paste for diluting in water: it is produced in India where it undergoes a cooking process that gives the flavour its typical notes of treacle.

Quality. Tamarind enthusiasts claim that the pulp is better when, in the ripening process, it becomes reddish brown in colour.

Rasam. Also called "chaaru", "saaru" or "kabir", this is a soup recipe from South India, in which four states lay claim to as many as 30 different variants: apart from the ubiquitous tamarind, the various recipes may call for the addition of tomatoes, lentils, chicken, moringa, unripe mango, black chickpeas, amla (an Indian gooseberry), neem flowers, chilli pepper, pepper or cumin.

Sambhar. Tamarind is one of the essential ingredients of "sambhar" (also known as "sambar", "sambaaru" and "toor dal" in northern India and "thuvaram paruppu"), a soup or stew of vegetables and pulses, typical of Indian cuisine, frequently mentioned in Tamil recipe books.

Tambran balls. A typical treat in Trinidad and Tobago (but also widespread in Jamaica, Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic), these round balls (no bigger than a golf ball) with their sweet and sour taste are made from tamarind pulp (often with its seeds left in) mixed with unrefined brown sugar (or palm sugar) and then sprinkled with sugar exactly like fruit jellies. Some varieties also contain flour (tapioca flour for instance) and, for a sweet and spicy kick, pepper, chilli pepper or garlic. The term "Tambran" may also refer to a sauce, which is equally common in Trinidad, Tobago, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica and Grenada (the Caribbean state which is part of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles).

Ulli theeyal. Tamarind paste - or extract - is one of the key ingredients of this onion based Indian stew ("ulli") with roasted coconut (as well as coriander, red chilli pepper, turmeric, curry leaves, garlic and mustard...). There is another version in which onions give way to okra, moringa, bitter melon, devil's fig and eggplant. Eggplant and tamarind pulp (or juice) are the winning combination of another popular Indian stew called "biryani brinjal".

Vendakkai Pulikulambu. Going under the name of "Ladyfingers in Tamarind Curry", this Indian recipe is typical of Tamil Nadu: it is actually okra stewed with shallot, garlic, chilli peppers, tomato, curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander and coconut.

Worcestershire sauce. Tamarind extract is one of the main ingredients in the famous sauce created in 1835 by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, which is only added when the sauce has been suitably aged (in wood casks for three years) together with malt vinegar, cloves, red chilli pepper, treacle and brown sugar. Other sauces in which tamarind makes an appearance are "HP" sauce and Jamaican "Pickapeppa".

XIX Century (in Italy). The year 1898 marked the launch in Italy of "Tamarindo Erba", containing tamarind extract (34%): this thick dark syrup, when diluted with iced water, produces a thirst-quenching and refreshing beverage. It is still on sale today in its original packaging: an elegant little square-shaped bottle, with a white label illustrating the story and virtues of the syrup, in old-style red lettering, autographed with the original signature of its creator: one engineer Carlo Erba, a descendant of a family of Lombard grocers.

Youtube. How should you eat a fresh tamarind? The platform answers this and many other queries, comprising tutorials on how to separate the pulp from its seeds and use it to make juices and soft drinks, sauces and condiments.

Zimbabwe. In this part of the world, they also use the leaves and flowers of the tamarind: both are decidedly sour, the former (usually the shoots) are added to spicy soups while the latter are used in salads.