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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tamarind--Facts, Fun, and Recipes

Tamarind--Facts, Fun, and Recipes 
by Victoria Challancin

It's all in the name.  For me, it's always in the name.  Tamarind.  Tamar Hindi.  Indian Date.  Tamarindus indica.  And although I have eaten tamarind in various dishes all over Southeast Asia, for me it will ever be dual-linked to the Arab world, where I first really discovered it, and to Mexico, where it flourishes in the cuisine.

Even though I was vaguely aware that tamarind was an ingredient in several popular sauces I used and loved, such as Pick-a-Peppa and Worcestershire (and later HP Sauce), I never really got to know it as an ingredient until I first lived in the Middle East in the mid-seventies. In Abu Dhabi, where I moved in 1975, I encountered tamarind first as a cold drink, delicately flavored with rosewater, offered during Ramadan as a traditional drink.  Sour and haunting, the elusive flavor of tamarind was enhanced for me by what was then to me a very exotic ingredient, rosewater.  Since that time, both ingredients have found their way over and over in my cooking.

Here is a lovely version of that drink by Sawsan, the exceptional blogger of Chef in Disguise:

Sweet Tamarind Drink
200g package of tamarind
1 liter water
Sugar to taste
Rosewater (optional--but not really, at least to me)

Break apart the tamarind into small segments.  Place it in a pot with the water and 2/3 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.  Turn off heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

Strain the mix through a fabric with fine weave or some coffee filters.

Taste and adjust the sugar to your liking.  Cool in the refrigerator.  Add a small amount of rosewater just before serving.

This next recipe is one I have used and taught, however I did find one that looks even better, if more complicated on Food and Wine's site:
My version is also nice with a bit of fresh ginger and/or some cinnamon added.  But that could be gilding the lily!
Margarita making, in my experience, involved tasting and adding, adjusting frequently so you can just the right balance of sweet-sour-tequila.  Feel free to tinker with this.  I do.

Tamarind Margarita
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

Per serving:

Chile-Lime powder to rim the glass  (I use Tajin brand)
2 lime wedges (one to moisten the rim  of the glass, one for garnish)
2 tablespoons (I like a strong tamarind flavor--use less if you don't)
1 1/2 ounces good-quality tequila
1/2 ounce orange liquor
1/2 ounce simple syrup (use more if you like it sweeter)

Rim the glass with a lime wedge, cutting a slit in the lime to facilitate the process.  Fill a cocktail shaker with ice/  Add all of the ingredients and shake well.  Strain into a prepared glass and serve.  If you prefer a slushy marg, simple place all of the ingredients in a blender and give it a whirl.

To Prepare Fresh Tamarind
Crack open the tamarind fruit/pod, removing all bits of the brittle covering/  Peel away the stringy fibers.  Place the peeled pods, about 2 1/2 cups, in a pot with water to  barely cover the fruit.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes.  Stir to dissolve the pulp.  Strain liquid into a bowl by pressing the solid contents through a fine sieve.  Use a spoon to scrape all the pulp from the bottom of the sieve--you don't want to miss a drop!  Discard the leftover seeds and fibers.  Alternatively, the pulp can be soaked in just warm water for about 10 minutes before removing the pulp, though this method is less efficient.

This drawing has been in my files for so long that I no longer where I originally found it.

Later in Mexico, I found tamarind in a special mole from Oaxaca,  in various aguas frescas (see my article on Mexican fruit drinks here), in a chicken dish cooked with apricots for a sweet and sour kick, as a glaze for grilled shrimp, as a flavor for a hot corn-based atole drinkand in more recent years it has flourished as a popular margarita flavoring. (see the recipe below)  But of course, my most vivid tamarindo moments always involved my child, born and raised in Mexico, who loved (and still does) the popular sweet/sour tamarind candy rolled in chile powder which always tumbled out of the broken piñatas of his younger years.  In fact, even when he was 20, I asked what I could bring from Mexico when I visited him in Los Angeles, where he was living:  "Pulparindo!" he happily cried.  Pulparindo, indeed--his favorite candy from his youth.  Of course he also asked for Tajin, a chile-lime powder popular for sprinkling on fruits and even sandwiches made with milanesas of chicken or pork.  So I dutifully found the requested items, but in tiny form, so that I could hide them in the pockets of his clothes, in his shoes, under his pillow, basically anywhere I thought it would a fun find for him once I left.

A very small sampling of typical tamarind-chile Mexican sweets called dulces de tamarindo, my favorite being the one served in the ceramic shoe!  Note that the little pot of tamarind sweet comes with its own spoon/shovel.

A bag of whole tamarind pods from a local grocery store; in the market it is found loose and in bulk

                                                                                         Mexican Tamarind Martinis with Sour Plums                                                                             Photograph by Zachary Popovsky

While working with the wonderful Hip Entertainment Group production company in Los Angeles on a FoodNetwork show, I was asked to develop a tamarind martini recipe.  Of course I left it to my 20-year-old son, at the time, knowing he would do a great job, a far better job than I, in fact.  Here is what Zack created, complete with the tiny sour, salted plums readily found in Mexico.  In the end, the main producer decided to feature a tamarind margarita instead...and more's the pity.

Ingredient Note:  Saladitos are a common sweet in Mexico, made from dried, salted plums, often with the addition of sugar and anise.  Similar to chamoy, a sweet/sour/ chile sweet made from dried apricots and frequently paired with other fruits, saladitos are often sucked on their own or placed at the bottom of a glass filled with a soft drink such as Sprite.

Mexican Tamarind Martinis with Salted Plums
(Recipe by Zachary Popovsky)
Makes 6 servings

12 oz shelled fresh tamarind pods, rinsed with cold water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup Mexican chile-lime powder (available in Mexican or Latin markets)
1 lime wedge
6 salted plums (available in Mexican or Latin markets)
2 to 2 1/2 cups vodka

Combine the tamarind and 4 cups water in a medium-size heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Boil, uncovered, until the tamarind is very soft, about 10 minutes.

Carefully pour the tamarind water into a container and set aside.

Using a potato or bean masher, mash the tamarind with seeds in the saucepan.  Return the reserved tamarind water to the saucepan and mix it into the mashed pulp.  Strain the mixture into a pitcher, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.  Discard the solids.

Stir in 3 cups fresh water to form a fairly concentrated mixture.  Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved. This concentrated mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance and kept refrigerated.

To prepare the martini glasses:  Pour several tablespoons of the chile-lime powder onto a flat saucer.  Make a gash in the lime wedge, using it to rim the martini glasses with lime juice.  Dip the rims of the glasses in the powder, tapping lightly to shake off any excess.

For each martini serving, combine 3/4 cup tamarind concentrate and 1/4 cup vodka in a cocktail shaker with ice.  Shake vigorously.  Strain into a prepared martin glass and serve.  Or, for a faster preparation, mix all the tamarind water, all the vodka, and some ice in a large pitcher and pour the mixture into each martini glass.

Tamarind History and a Few Fun Facts:
  • Botanically speaking, tamarind is native to tropical Africa, but because it is so prevalent in India, many people believe it originated there.  
  • It grows wild in Sudan and can be found in many other African countries as well
  • Arab traders traded tamarind to India and today, India is the number one producer of tamarind
  • The Portuguese introduced tamarind to the East Indies
  • The Spanish traders took tamarind to the Philippines and then to Mexico
  • Early colonists distributed tamarind throughout the Americas during the 17th century
  • Although India is the largest commercial cultivator of tamarind today, it is also produced in Mexico, Sudan, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Cameroon, Nigeria and Tanzania
  • The ancient Egyptians cultivated tamarind
  • The etymology of the word "tamarind" shows that it comes from the Arabic "tamar," or date, and "hindi," which means "Indian," hence "tamar hindi," or tamarind, Indian date
  • The tartaric acid, a powerful antioxidant, found in the pulp pairs well with both meat and vegetable dishes 
  • A tamarind tree can grow up to 80n feet in height, making it among the largest of the tropical trees belonging to the Fabaceae family
  • Each fruit pod has a brittle outer shell which encases the soft, fibrous pulp, and contains up to 10 hard dark-brown seeds
  • African children often use the  seeds from tamarind pods are often used in games
  • Minerals found in tamarind pulp include: copper, potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium
  • Rich in vitamins, including thiamin, vitamin A, Vitamin C as well as folic acid, niacin,  and riboflavin
  • Tamarind is rich in phytochemicals such as limocen, safrole, and cinnamic acid
  • Tamarind has beend used as an emulsifying agent in syrups and decoctions in various pharmaceutical products 
  • Fresh tamarind pods are available in late spring and early summer seasons, but process tamarind (i.e. in blocks, slices, paste, concentrates, balls, syrups, etc) are available throughout the year
  • In India, a special wooken stick is kept in the kitchen for the purpose of beating the pulp to remove the seeds
  • Tamarind blends well with other flavors; one popular drink blends the pulp with dates, sugar or honey, cardamom, cloves, and coriander seeds
  • Tamarind pulp is also sued as a solidifying agent in confectionaries
  • Tamarind has no known reported cases of allergic or toxicity
  • Eye drops exist that are made from tamarind seeds to ease dry eye syndrome (the seeds contain polysaccharide, which is adhesive and sticks to the surface of the eye for longer durations compared to other eye meds)
  • To alleviate biliousness and bile conditions, tamarind juice is drunk with lemon, milk, honey and dates
  • Combining the seeds with equal portions of cumin and sugar is a cure for dysentery, as is tamarind milk
  • Tamarind has even been used to combat body odor!

Health Benefits:
  • Because of the refrigerant properties of tamarind, it makes a good drink for anyone suffering from fever
  • Tamarind is packed with vitamin B and calcium
  • Tamarind is also slightly laxative
  • The sticky pulp is a rich source of non-starch fiber which increases the bulk of food and augments bowel movements
  • The fiber found in tamarind binds to toxins, thus helping to protect the colon mucus membrane from cancer-causing chemicals
  • The fibers in the pulp also bind to bile salts, which helps protect from cholesterol and aids in the expulsion of LDL cholesterol levels from the body
  • As with all ancient foods, tamarind has a long history of medicinal uses which range from easing stomach discomfort, aiding digestion, treating fevers, and use a a laxative
  • Sore throat, rheumatism, inflammation, and sunstroke have all been treated with tamarind
  • Dried or boiled leaves and flowers have been commonly used as poultices for swollen joints, sprains, boils, hemorrhoids, and conjunctivitis
  • Tamarind is best avoided by those who have diabetes as it is high in sugar
  • A brief breakdown in tamarind's health benefits shows that  its vitamin B content aids the nervous system;  its magnesium helps keep the bones strong; because if its high source of fiber, it helps overcome constipation and aids digestion; its high levels of potassium helps control blood pressure; its high iron content helps prevent anemia; the thiamin and niacin found in tamarind help control cholesterol levels; the riboflavin content of tamarind helps release energy from carbohydrates; rich in calcium, tamarind helps the process of blood clotting (with vitamin K);
  • the vitamin C found in tamarind helps maintain healthy teeth and gums; and among all the fruits and vegetables, tamarind is the highest source of protein, which can help produce antibodies that fight viruses and bacteria

Global Uses of Tamarind:
  • In Ghana, it is used to make a poisonous yam palatable and safe
  • In India it often appears in chutneys, curries (particularly vindaloo curries), rassams, and sauces and is used in ayurvedic medicine as a digestive, laxative, tonic, anthelminthic, antipyretic, and astringent, plus as a treatment for sore throat, urinary problems, some venereal diseases, ulcers, liver disease, and more
  • In Guadeloupe it is often found in jams and syrups
  • In Java, tamarind often livens up fish
  • Throughout Southeast Asia tamarind appears on the table in a variety of dishes from condiments to drinks to main-dish sauces, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines 
  • In the Philippines tamarind can be found in several soups and candies; the leaves are also popular as a soup ingredient
  • In Thailand a special cultivar has been developed to yield a fresh fruit that is sweeter and less sour than is usual
  • In Thailand, it also often is eaten in a sour curry and of course, no self-respecting Pad Thai dish would be authentic without it!
  • In Mexico it is used in sauces, snacks, and sweets--almost always paired with chiles
  • Balls of tamarind pulp (see photo above) rolled in chile are common in Jamaica, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, and particularly Mexico, where it flourishes (it is also found in other Latin American countries to a lesser degree)
  • Throughout Africa it is a common food plant used to boost nutrition
  • In Nigeria a breakfast porridge is made of tamarind and millet powder to be eaten with bean cakes
  • In southern Kenya along the coast, tamarind is used to garnish beans and legumes and also to make juices
  • In Myanmar, young, tender leaves and flower buds are eaten as a vegetable
  • In Myanmar, the leaves are often made into a salad with boiled beans, peanuts, and fried onions
  • In the Chinese province of Yunnan, tamarind is used in jams and chilled drinks
  • In Lebanon a commercial tamarind soft drink is sold
  • Throughout the Middle East and Iran, tamarind is used in savory meat stews, often combined with other fruits
  • In Turkey tamarind is consumed as a cold drink
  • Tamarind leaves make up about 50% of the food source for ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar
  • Throughout Southeast Asia, tamarind is used as a poultice for fever
  • The dense and durable wood of the tamarind tree has a strong red color, making it popular for furniture making and hard wood flooring
  • Tamarind concentrate can also be sued to remove the tarnish from brass and copper
                                (Thank you, Wikipedia, for much of this)

Parting Shot:  Rain Buddha
Photo taken by my dear friend Tom in his garden here in San Miguel

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Travel
San Miguel de Allende, 


Anonymous said...

A great blog post! But you forget the best iteration of tamardindos -- Checolines!

Anonymous said...

A great blog post! But you forget the best iteration of tamardindos -- Checolines!

Victoria Challancin said...

You are absolutely right!

Eha said...

Thank you for the oh so interesting lesson! I first came upon tamarind when trying recipes from a West Indies cookbook long time ago. It is still not widely known or used in the Antipodes and I can only buy it block form: do love the very special taste though. Daresay pods available at some of the more tropical markets. Thought your botanical print was a Bertha Noolen van Hooten initially [I was fortunate to curate one of her retro exhibitions in Queensland] but methinks I have to do more homework :) !

Victoria Challancin said...

Thanks, Eha. I should know from whence came that print, but honestly, I copy and dragged it to a file years ago, long before my blog, and I just don't know. Will check it out. If you don't have tamarind, though, how do you make Pad Thai??????

Eha said...

Oh I would use tamarind personally at least a few times a month for various recipes but I can only buy it in packaged/block form at speciality stores. I have not see the pods on sale but am certain they could be in so in the city. Have a good weekend . . . and my Google transmission has inexplicably slowed today: that may have caused my being unable to PU your blog this morning :) !

Hotly Spiced said...

I used tamarind in a pork curry last night. Unfortunately I added too much and there was too much of a sour flavour to the curry. I do love the flavour of tamarind and use it often in Thai cooking but you've inspired me to try it in many more ways xx

Victoria Challancin said...

To both Eha and Charlie--I was sure that tamarind in some form must be available to you (you seem to be lucky enough to have just everything in Oz!), especially due to the proximity to SE Asia. Glad this post inspired you to branch out with it, though, as it really is a spectacular ingredient!

mimi said...

A fabulous and very interesting post! Thanks!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I love these posts that you do Victoria. They're always so educational. I really love tamarind drink-not just because it reminds me of being on holidays! :)

sherry from sherryspickings said...

what an interesting post. i love tamarind and have used it in my curries for years.

sherry from sherryspickings said...

just in response to some of the comments about getting it here in australia- it is in supermarkets as a paste in a jar so very easy to get, and also in spice shops/Indian grocers etc.

Tania @My Kitchen Stories said...

It's such a fantastic ingrediant and I had no idea it was used so widely or was brought to Mexico by the Portugese, Thanks for the great info.

Merryn said...

What a lovely story. I have never seen a tamarind pod before and had no idea as to the extent of it's uses. I love the addition of tamarind to a curry but having it as a drink is a very original idea. I really enjoyed reading your story. (Kids use the pods to play with, my my :D)