Today our Herbs & Spices series focuses on a legume. You might be thinking, “Legumes? What do peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts have to do with herbs and spices?” It turns out that another member of the legume family – tamarind – contributes to delicious recipes with its own, unique ﬂavor. This relative of carob and honey locust grows on a tree, and the edible portion of the plant is technically the fruit – a pod that contains juicy ﬂesh surrounding the tree’s seeds. The tamarind pulp can be eaten raw (directly oﬀ the tree, even!) but it starts out very sour – thanks to tartaric acid – and grows increasingly sweet as the fruit ripens. Even when ripe, though, tamarind pulp maintains a pleasing balance of sweet and tart that makes it a tasty addition to many recipes, from entrees to desserts.
The tamarind tree is indigenous to coastal, tropical regions in central Africa and the Arabian peninsula including the Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Oman. However, today the tree can be found in tropical regions throughout the globe from Africa to South Asia to tropical areas of Australia and Oceania, to Latin America. So, it’s no surprise that this delicious legume is found in a similarly wide variety of cuisines. Tamarind is used in sweets including jam, syrup, ice cream, and candies; in savory dishes (particularly in Indian cuisine) including sour pickles, sambhar, and chutneys; in sauces including Worcestershire sauce, and a sweet-sour variation on Mexican mole; and in drinks including sodas and Mexican agua frescas. One of my favorite ways to enjoy tamarind is in the popular Indian street snack, pani poori, which pairs sour tamarind sauce with spicy chili, creamy potatoes and chickpeas, and the crunchy poori shell.
Like most other herbs and spices, tamarind has a wide variety of non-culinary uses. In some parts of the globe, the pulp or seeds are used to dye animal hides and fabrics. Interestingly, the acidic nature of the pulp and other parts of the tamarind tree make it useful as metal polish. Additionally, parts of the tamarind tree have traditionally had wide medicinal use throughout its native areas, most commonly as an external antiseptic rub or poultice.
Here in the US, where tamarind is not commercially cultivated (due to the frost-sensitive nature of the tropical tree), we most commonly ﬁnd tamarind paste or concentrate. These products are pulp that has been removed from the outer pod, processed to remove the seeds, packaged, and preserved. In some Asian, Latin, or African markets (or on the internet, a wonderful resource for herbs and spices), you might be able to ﬁnd whole tamarind pods – to use these, simply remove the pulp from the outer pod and discard the seeds. Alternatively, it’s increasingly easy to give tamarind’s unique sweet-tart taste a try as tamarind juices, candies, or syrups are often found in the ethnic foods aisle of your local supermarket.