Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tamarind: The Tropical Treat

Tamarindus indica L.

Leguminosae (Fabaceae)

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 local village in India, I recalled dispelling the harsh summer heat under the shady refuge of a tamarind tree. I joined some of the local children to obtain its delicious fruit by pelting its branches with whatever we could find on the ground. Once the pods fell, we hungrily dove towards our treats. The tamarind pod seemed unappetizing at first glance, the large ones were roughly 6-10 cm, curvy pods, with the coloring of dirt, but it was the first crack of the matured pod which released a wonderful, pungent aroma assuring us of a true epicurean adventure. Once opened, we eagerly gnawed the sweet and sour, dark brown meat around the seeds within the pod. As a child, the journeys of such discoveries are fascinating as we were not concerned with the tough strands of fibers which needed to be pulled apart in this unrefined fruit. We were unconcerned with our sticky fingers and relished the last few nibbles on our hands. We even ventured to make games out of the glossy purplish-red seeds which resembled precious stones.  Our little unseasoned minds were unconcerned and unaware of the gift these precious stones could afford not only to this rural community but many other towns facing the blight of malnutrition.

Years later I discovered that the Tamarind was widely used in India, Asia, Africa and many other parts of the world and the term 'Tamar-Hind' was the Arabic word describing the fruit as an Indian Date. The pulp could be used in most Indian curries, drinks and chutneys and provided 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 tamarind fruit, most parts of this tree from roots, bark to leaves are used in rural India from agricultural use to deity worship. 

Although the herbal uses of Tamarind may have been known for some time, it is the nutritional content which is equally interesting. Tamarind concoctions have been used as cooling, laxative and digestive aids for centuries. Eggs are often used as a protein standard and according to the American Egg board (Yes there is such a thing!) one large egg has about 6 grams of protein. A 100 grams of eggs equate to about 11 grams of proteins, the tamarind yields 2 to 3 grams of protein, 34 to 94 mg of Calcium and 44 mg of Vitamin C per 100 grams of the raw fruit. This baby has low water content and high levels of proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates and minerals.

Interesting isn't it how such a reclusive fruit can be a delight not only to your palette but to your health!  This is precisely what brings me to a more important pathway – the future.  According to J.T. Williams in the publication Tamarind, Tamarind trees are “easy to cultivate and underexploited.” New strains of sweet tamarind which are less acidic have created a renewed interest in growing Tamarind as a commercial crop leading to expanded cultivation in some parts of Asia. In addition, because Tamarind 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 sub-standard health conditions.  Pessimism always tempers optimism and in the case of our forgettable Tamarind new roads of improvement need to be paved to make this fruit more accessible. Post harvest issues of storage, the need for modern equipment such as shellers and better 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 to 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.