Tamarind, the fruit of an evergreen tree, is an interesting product with a wide variety of uses.
The tree, which is native to tropical Africa and was introduced into America in the 16th Century, can adapt to many growing conditions. It is largely drought-resistant, slowly grows to about 20m (65 feet) high, and has a long life providing shade and edible fruit.
The trees bear pods which are picked either when green and immature, to pickle in brine, or left to ripen on the tree to be harvested at the end of summer. The thin and brittle brown shell of the mature pods is easily cracked open, exposing the fleshy pulp entangled with a fibrous husk and glossy, dark brown seeds. Most of the long fibres can be pulled out by hand.
In its unadulterated form, tamarind is sold as a pressed slab of matted fibre that needs to be soaked to release the pulp. Put the required amount of tamarind in a small bowl and add the specified amount of hot water. Leave the tamarind to soften for 5-10 minutes.
Use your fingers to separate the pulp from the seeds and fibre. Push the mixture through a sieve and discard seeds and fibre.
Prepared tamarind will keep well for a week or more in a container in the fridge, or it can be frozen; freezing it in an ice-cube tray, where each cube equals about 1 tablespoon of pulp, is the most convenient way.
Ready-to-use tamarind pulp and purée is also sold in jars, offering a less messy, convenient option. If kept refrigerated, it lasts for up to a year once opened.
Some tamarind is salted so check the label. For a sweet dish, choose unsalted.
The pulp has a fruity aroma and is high in both acid and sugar. It’s used widely as an acidifying agent, as you would a lemon or a lime, in soups, curries, salads and sweet dishes. Its high pectin content makes it useful for jams and chutneys. It’s also used to make a refreshing drink, which in some countries is carbonated.
Tamarind is a good source of Vitamin B and calcium, it’s good for digestion and is a mild laxative. And it’s also used as a gargle. It even does household chores: tamarind removes greening and dullness from brass. Mix tamarind fibre with coarse salt and rub it over brass objects – it really works!
Young tamarind pods are cooked with rice to provide a sour flavour.
Mature green pods are roasted over coals until the pulp sizzles, then dipped in hot ashes and eaten.
The pulp is sometimes sugared and eaten as a sweetmeat, or mixed with starchy ingredients then sugared.
The leaves make a refreshing tea.
To experience the above, you’ll have to travel to the source, Africa, Asia or the Caribbean or South America, but we can all get a taste of it in its readily available form – in Worcestershire or HP sauce, and in various pepper sauces.